Millions of people are casting their vote in elections across England, Scotland and Wales on Thursday, the first since the start of the Covid pandemic and with a host of new safety measures in place – including advice to bring your own pencil or pen.
Polling stations have been transformed for Covid safety with plexiglass screens, one-way systems, hand sanitiser, social distancing markers and sterilisation of surfaces.
At the Manchester central library polling station, all nine staff, including a trained Covid safety officer, had passed a Covid test in the last 48 hours, as well as undergoing mandatory Covid safety training.
Presiding officer Stephen Hague said: “We’ve had to do quite a lot of risk assessments from a building perspective – some stations that would normally be in use aren’t appropriate because they only have one door or insufficient ventilation.
“My usual station is another site, a school in the city centre, but it’s closed today as only one door in and out.”
All voters were advised to bring their own pen or pencil to their polling station if possible, but they are available on site for those who don’t have one.
“Quite a few people are bringing their own, but we are providing them as well, and there’s a used and unused box so we can clean them,” said the presiding officer at a polling station in Moseley, Birmingham. “We’re also cleaning the booths every 10-15 minutes, and when traffic is quiet we’re able to manage that quite easily.”
She has been helping to run elections in the area for 10 years, and said she had noticed a shift in the traffic this year, with more people working from home meaning less of a morning rush.
Early on Thursday it seemed everything was running smoothly, with no reports of long queues or overcrowding, although some early morning voters in Oxford ended up voting in the boot of a car after the church warden overslept.
“The best way to describe it is what you see walking into a supermarket now will be replicated in polling stations, and it may take a little bit longer,” said Peter Stanyon, chief executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators, adding that exact measures would vary across local authority.
“In Hertfordshire, for example, they are going to quarantine the ballot papers and start the count on Saturday, but that’s not being replicated across the country.”
The Electoral Commission has been preparing for today from the moment 2020 elections were postponed due to the pandemic, and although they are anticipating a rise in postal votes, surveys conducted in the autumn showed many people were still keen to vote in person.
“What we saw coming through really clearly was that as long as the right safety measures were in place in polling stations, the majority of people felt they would still want to vote in person,” said Craig Westwood from the Electoral Commission.
“As we’ve been planning it over the last eight or nine months, we didn’t really know what life was going to look like, so we’ve basically planned for the worst and hoped for the best.”
He added that one of the crucial changes for elections this year is that voters can now appoint an emergency proxy vote up to 5pm on polling day if they need to self-isolate due to Covid.
“It’s as much about confidence for the staff in the polling station and for voters, and that’s where the issue of the pen or pencil comes in,” said Westwood. “If people can bring their own, it’s just one less piece of transmission to limit the risk and help people feel confident.”