‘Bring your own pencil’: How will Covid impact voting at the Senedd election?
Gareth Williams, local democracy reporter
“Bring your own pencil” is the advice for voters visiting their local polling stations next week as Wales faces a democratic process like never before.
The ongoing realities of living with Covid means that this year’s Senedd election will be like no other, with counting and electoral staff facing unprecedented challenges to ensure a fair and accurate poll.
With social distancing also meaning that fewer counting staff will be on hand at some of the various counts, the process of sorting and eventually counting the votes won’t start until next Friday morning, with the final makeup of the new Senedd not expected until the early evening.
But as well as facing the challenge of hosting as many as four separate counts when taking Police and Crime and other by-elections into consideration, voters will also feel the changes when they enter the polling booths next Thursday.
Colin Everett of Flintshire Council is the Regional Returning Officer for the North Wales region, meaning he will be responsible for the smooth running of the regional list count which covers nine separate constituencies.
With planning having been underway for several months, including input from the respective returning officers of all six of the region’s authorities, everything is in place to ensure that the democratic process can take place as safely as possible.
“We’ve been thinking about and planning for these elections for some time so that however people choose to cast their vote in May, they can do so safely,” said Mr Everett.
“We’re putting arrangements in place to help voters and staff stay safe at the polling station. Many of the measures people now expect to see in shops and banks such as hand sanitiser, floor markings and face masks will be in place but you also have the option to apply to vote by post or by proxy.”
Among the COVID-19 measures set to be in place at polling stations will be:
- Separate entrances and exits where possible
- At some polling stations, a door manager will be in attendance to ensure that social distancing can be maintained at all times
- Altered layouts to allow for social distancing when waiting to vote and when completing a ballot paper, but still ensuring electors can cast their vote in secret
- Polling station staff wearing PPE
- Voters encouraged to bring their own pen or pencil
- Polling booths regularly sanitised.
In addition, voters are asked to wear a face covering and ensure that only two voters enter a polling station at a time, while maintaining a safe distance throughout their visit.
Such measures mean that voters at busy polling stations may have to wait for longer than usual to be able to cast their vote, with peak times usually being 7am to 9.30am, lunchtime, 3.30pm to 4.30pm and 6.00pm to 8.00pm.
However, anyone queuing to vote at a polling station by 10pm will still be able to vote.
Mr Everett added: “These measures may mean electors have to wait for longer than usual to be able to cast their vote but they will be able to do so with confidence in a safe and clean environment.”
Next week’s elections will also be the first where 16 and 17 year old’s will be entitled to vote, with early estimates on Anglesey showing that 791 – or around 70% – have been registered in time.
Annwen Morgan, the island’s returning officer, added: “Your poll card will tell you where to find your polling station. Make sure you check the information on your polling card, as your polling station might have changed since the last elections.
“You do not need your poll card to vote, however, we encourage you to bring it with you to make the process quicker and more efficient.
“This will also be a new experience for our 16 and 17 year-olds as they cast their vote for the very first time in the Senedd elections. I would like to wish them well.”
Rhydian Thomas, Head of the Electoral Commission Wales, said: “If you are voting in person, make sure you remember to bring your face covering and a pen or pencil with you.
“At the polling station, help keep yourself and others safe by following the safety measures, including sanitising your hands and keeping a safe distance from others.”
Polling stations will be open from 7am to 10pm on Thursday 6 May. Voters who have opted to vote by post must return their postal ballot pack by 10pm and can hand it in at their polling station if they don’t have time to return it by post.
For further information on how to apply for an emergency proxy, voters should contact their local authority’s electoral registration team.