The coronavirus pandemic could mean voting in next year’s Holyrood election will take place over two days instead of the usual one, the parliamentary business minister has confirmed.
Graeme Dey spoke about the contingency plan as MSPs began scrutinising new legislation to deal with the impact Covid-19 could have on next year’s ballot, which is due to be held on May 6.
He said the Scottish Government could decide to extend the voting period if those organising the ballot decide it is “advisable”.
In such a scenario, he said it is “most likely” votes would be cast on the Thursday – the day elections are traditionally held in the UK – and the following day.
Mr Dey told MSPs on the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee: “If we were to go to two days … the most likely scenario would be the Thursday, which is the established day for voting, and the Friday.”
But he stressed the Scottish Government “will at all times be driven by the advice we are getting from the people whose job it is to deliver the election”.
MSPs heard coronavirus pandemic voting should be “significantly safer” than going to the supermarket.
Malcom Burr, the convener of the Electoral Management Board for Scotland, told the committee: “We must remember we are running by-elections at present in a safe environment.
“Polling places will be safe, they will be regulated environments.
“I would argue, even in a Level 4 area, a polling place would be a significantly safer environment than say a supermarket.”
He said there should be “no bar” to people voting in person in the election “providing polling stations are appropriately run”.
Mr Burr added: “People will be welcomed when they come to vote but they won’t be encouraged to linger, so they won’t be there for more than the 15 minutes that would trigger contact tracing.”
He told the committee coronavirus measures mean it is likely it will take longer for election results to be known.
The provision for having voting over more than one day is one of the possible measures contained in the Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill.
Mr Dey explained the legislation, which could also delay the vote if necessary, is being introduced so ministers can “ensure the election is conducted safely and appropriately”.
Electoral Commissioner for Scotland Dame Susan Bruce said it is crucial ministers to listen to returning officers on whether the vote can be safely held on one day.
She added: “Schools are very much used as polling places and given the disruption to education as a result of the pandemic already, a side issue would be the consideration of taking schools out for more days than necessary.”
Steps are being put in place for as many as 40% of the votes cast in the election to be postal ballots, Mr Dey said.
Currently fewer than one in five (18%) Scots cast their vote this way but this expected to rise because of the pandemic.
Mr Dey said the Scottish Government, together with the Electoral Commission, is planning a public awareness campaign on the availability of postal votes and “perhaps the advisability that people might want to think about it at that point”.
He added the 169,000 Scots who were on the shielding list earlier in the pandemic will be contacted directly.
Moving to an election when all votes are cast by post – another possibility suggested in the Bill – is an “absolute last resort”, Mr Dey stressed.
He said this is an “extremely unlikely scenario”, adding: “We are trying to have an in-person election with a substantial postal vote input, with social distancing measures in place in the polling stations to conduct it safely.”
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