The coronavirus pandemic has made us do many things differently. How we work, how we stay in touch with family and friends, how we shop. The latest challenge is how we vote. What does democracy look like in a global health crisis? It looks like we are about to find out.
Last year’s Council and Mayoral elections, which were due to take place in early May just six weeks into the first lockdown were understandably postponed by a year. We were too early in the pandemic to contemplate holding Covid secure elections; masks were not yet compulsory in shops; we were still trying to get our heads around ‘hands, face, space’ and what exactly two metres looks like. I remember at the time thinking that postponing them by a full twelve months did not bode well for how long the Government suspected the Covid-19 crisis might continue. Sadly that hunch proved right. Here we are, a year into the pandemic, again in lockdown, again wondering when anything like normality may return.
This year, elections do look set to go ahead. The 6th of May is set to be Super Thursday, with Council and Mayoral elections here, and elsewhere, Scottish Parliament elections, Welsh Assembly elections and Police and Crime Commissioner elections. It’s the biggest opportunity for the country to have its say outside of a General Election. It’s crucial you do.
This pandemic has proved how essential the different layers of our democracy are. Councils and councillors have been on the frontline, from delivering food to the isolating, to working with the local NHS to coordinate the vaccine rollout, to supporting our schools to work differently. The importance of a Greater Manchester Mayor was laid bare during the standoff with Government, in which the Conservative Cabinet seemed adamant to ask Northern employees to survive on 60% furlough, when it had been 80% when London and the South East was affected. If we had not had that elected GM wide voice in Andy Burnham, the deal for areas like ours could have got worse and worse.
Yet it is obvious that things will have to be done differently in these elections. There can be no shoulder to shoulder queues, no sharing of pencils and no cramped airless polling stations. If America can manage to hold a Presidential Election in the middle of this crisis (and thank God they did, or who knows how much longer the world would have been stuck with an increasingly volatile Donald Trump), we can surely work these issues out here. One of the biggest lessons from the USA was loud and clear: the safest way to have your say in a coronavirus-impacted election is to vote by post.
I would strongly advise every single voter to register for a postal vote for these upcoming elections. It means that whatever the infection rate on Polling Day, whatever the weather, and whatever your personal circumstances, you will still get the chance to have your say on who represents your community.
Personally, I myself will be registering for a postal vote for the first time. Usually I love to vote in person, in my case up the road at St Paul’s school in Stalybridge. I love to say hello to the attendants on the way in; I love the feel a crisp ballot paper in my hand; I love to physically watch the paper fall into the ballot box. This year however, I’ll be watching it fall into the post box instead. It safeguards against the unexpected. What if I was poorly on Polling Day, or had been instructed to isolate? Registering for a postal vote means I get a much longer window to have my say, and if I couldn’t leave the house, a neighbour could simply post it for me.
Voting by post is secure- you still mark your vote on the ballot paper in secret, and you seal the envelope yourself. It is straightforward, with clear instructions. You can download the form at this web address: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/apply-for-a-postal-vote. Or, if you don’t have access to the internet or a printer, you can call Tameside Council and ask for one, on 0161 342 8355.
Postal vote signatures need to be updated every 5 years, so if you’ve had one a while and get sent a form asking you to re-confirm your signature, please remember to send that back. When I first became involved in politics, postal votes were only for the ill. You literally needed a doctor’s note to qualify. Now, rightly, they available to everyone, as a key mechanism for making our democracy more inclusive. Be smart, apply for your postal vote today.