Orders from the government to not use schools on election day could cause serious problems in Croydon
If you have a garden shed that is not being used on Thursday May 6, or an empty garage perhaps, you might want to give Katherine Kerswell a call and offer your space up for a juicy commercial rental.
Because Kerswell, the council’s interim chief executive and therefore the returning officer in charge of running elections, is on the hunt for nearly 40 alternative venues to act as polling stations on election day in just 11 weeks’ time.
There is growing concern in Croydon over arrangements for the staging of the London elections on May 6 because of the borough’s reliance on schools to provide polling stations. At recent elections, 37 Croydon polling stations have been based in schools – but because of covid-19, the arrangements for voters to be able to attend and exercise their democratic rights in a covid-secure environment makes using schools a health and safety minefield.
The government confirmed that elections – many of which, as in London, had been held over from 2020 because of the pandemic – will go ahead across the country on May 6. Because of coronavirus, electors will have to go to the polls equipped with their own pencils.
That, though, could be the least of many voting areas’ worries, according to the Association of Electoral Administrators.
The AEA have issued a statement saying that they are “extremely disappointed” with the government’s position over the use of schools as polling stations while covid-19 still stalks the nation.
Not for the first time, the government is being accused of doing too little, too late, to cope with the demands placed on local authorities by the covid-19 pandemic.
“The Department for Education and Cabinet Office are correct that it is not possible in all cases to avoid using schools as polling stations,” the AEA said.
“Election teams… only use schools where there really is no other suitable alternative. The availability of suitable venues for polling stations is already limited in many areas. This is understandably heightened this year due to the block-booking of many community and commercial venues as coronavirus testing or vaccination centres.
“The announcement of extra funding for coronavirus-related election expenses last week has come too late to affect the polling station booking process. There is no time available to search out alternative premises and assess whether they can accommodate polling and additional covid-related safety measures.
“This is exacerbated by the fact that information is already being sent to printers for poll cards to be sent out.
“Guidance on cleaning and ventilating spaces after the polls is welcome, but this must not fall on polling stations teams. They already work a 17-hour unbroken shift on polling day to prepare their station before opening, manage the poll and then transport all materials from the polling station – including the sealed ballot boxes – back to election counts as quickly as possible after the polls close.”
In a letter to headteachers and borough returning officers, sent last week by Nick Gibb, the education minister, and Lord True, a Cabinet Office minister, they appealed to those organising the vote to avoid using schools where possible. But in a borough such as Croydon, finding 37 alternative venues which are suitable for a covid-secure ballot could be a massive problem.
“This year all children have missed vital time at school and the government is committed to minimising any further disruption to pupils’ education,” Gibb and True said in their letter.
“We know that Returning Officers are acutely aware of this and are seeking to avoid using schools as polling stations… In particular, we are clear that where schools would be required to close, Returning Officers should look to other available venues first. There may be other venues locally that can be considered, such as places of worship, gymnasiums or other community or commercial venues.
“This should be an opportunity to support local businesses and we would very much encourage you to work to find viable alternatives to schools in your local area.”
This, according to the Electoral Administrators, is impractical.
“If the UK Government would prefer schools not to be used as polling stations in the future, we would expect this to be reflected in the law that expressly entitles Returning Officers to use publicly funded buildings, and in the resources made available to administer elections,” they said.
Of course, individual voters, rather than risk the confusion over having to go to an unfamiliar polling station, or the risk of contagion from covid-19 if they have not had the full vaccination by May 6, do have an alternative: postal votes.
To request a postal vote by… err… post, then write to the Electoral Registration Officer, Town Hall, Katharine Street, Croydon CR9 1DE, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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