Scottish electoral officials believe upwards of 2 million people could use postal votes if Holyrood elections take place in May, to avoid using polling stations during the Covid pandemic.
Scotland’s councils and electoral bodies have said the parliamentary election on 6 May could be held safely if the pandemic remains under control, but senior officials have told the Guardian it will present significant and costly logistical challenges.
Polling by the Electoral Commission, the UK’s elections regulator, has found that up to 68% of Scotland’s 4 million voters could opt for postal votes – nearly four times the normal number, adding significantly to the cost of staging it.
Scotland’s political parties are planning to promote postal voting heavily among their supporters and target voters in the next few weeks to minimise the risk from the pandemic and mitigate the impact on turnout.
It is understood the UK Labour party is considering a similar campaign for the English council, mayoral and police and crime commissioner elections, borrowing the “vote early” slogan used in the recent US elections.
Both the UK and Scottish governments say publicly all elections planned across England, Wales and Scotland can be held as scheduled on 6 May, but privately doubts are being voiced about whether it will be possible.
Some council leaders are worried about the significant costs and health risks of staging an election, and have asked the umbrella body for the country’s 32 councils, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, to assess whether it can be safely carried out.
Many council officials work from home, greatly increasing the organisational challenges of organising 2m postal votes, and those of running the election as a whole.
A number of Labour politicians have called for the Holyrood elections to be postponed, arguing the uncertainties of the pandemic, the costs and logistics, and the risks that voter turnout could be heavily affected if some areas are hit by fresh Covid outbreaks.
Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, said on Friday the election could still be safely held and pointed to the recent US elections successfully taking place. New legislation allows the Holyrood election to be held over two days, for the count to take longer or for a six-month delay, if necessary.
Scotland’s rate of Covid deaths and hospitalisations during the latest wave has been the lowest of all four UK nations, but in a subtle shift of tone, Sturgeon acknowledged on Friday that changes or postponement could be necessary.
As a contingency plan, the Scottish parliament’s official dissolution has been postponed until 5 May to allow MSPs to reconvene for an emergency session if the Covid crisis means changes to the election are needed. Normally, Holyrood would be dissolved in late March.
“If there’s any change made to the timing of the election or to the rules of conduct, it’s really important that those are not decisions for the government of the day alone, it would be a cross-party decision and one that involves [Holyrood’s] presiding officer as well,” Sturgeon said.
Two opinion polls of Scottish voters carried out by the Electoral Commission since last August found that while 77% of voters could use polling stations if the right safety measures were in place, 23% would prefer a postal vote. That is in addition to the 18% of electors who usually vote by post.
Of voters who use polling stations, 61% said they would switch to a postal ballot if they were encouraged to do so, increasing the total number who could register for an absentee vote to about 2.7 million people.
It has alarmed council officials. It would mean registering 2 million extra voters for absentee ballots, checking their identities, and then printing, posting and validating their ballots. The Electoral Commission believes 3-5% of those votes could be spoilt by voters incorrectly filling out the forms, potentially invalidating up to 135,000 votes.