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May elections for Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells councils, KCC and police and crime commissioner will go ahead despite coronavirus

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Elections scheduled for May will go ahead despite concerns that they could expose voters, candidates and those involved in counting to coronavirus.

The government has confirmed the elections, postponed last year, will be held but that measures will be put in place to limit the risk of people contracting the infection.

A polling station at Grove Green Community Centre. Picture: John Westhrop
A polling station at Grove Green Community Centre. Picture: John Westhrop

These include voters having to wear masks and bring their own pencils to polling stations.

Elections will be held for Kent County Council, the crime commissioner and two district councils: Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells.

One council chief said there should be a delay and the government should put them off until later in the year.

Cllr Martin Cox (Lib Dem) said contingency planning would only go so far to eliminate the risks and councils faced additional costs to try and make polling stations and counting venues safe.

Cllr Cox said: “We must be careful. I would hate to think that anyone got Covid let alone they lost their life because we have called on them to deliver something or sign nomination forms. That is just one issue.”

Cllr Martin Cox at Mote Park
Cllr Martin Cox at Mote Park

“There is no legislation to allow that as an excuse to leave your home yet we have got to get candidates’ nomination forms signed by ten people. In the case of the crime commissioner elections they have to get 100 people.”

He said the logistics of organising several hundred polling stations and counts in a way which made them secure was a serious challenge, particularly given the need to observe the socially distant regulations.

“We need 74 polling stations in Maidstone and we haven’t heard back from 11. We have got to make each one Covid secure and instill confidence in the electorate that they are safe.”

The council had been advised perspex screens should be bought to install at tables used to count votes.

According to one election agent, some councils are struggling to recruit enough casual staff to act as counters because of the potential health risks.

“The government seems determined to press ahead come what may but there is growing opposition to the idea - the practical issues are huge.”

Voters in some parts of the county face as many as five ballot papers, with by-elections and parish councils also holding ballots.

Cllr Cox said that too could contribute to delays announcing results, potentially until the Monday after the vote on Thursday.

A better option would be to delay the elections until October or November, he added.

The current crime commissioner for Kent, Matthew Scott, said the overriding priority was health.

“I have always said that the election should be held when it's safe to be held and that needs to be driven by infection rates; the levels of vaccination and fatalities. We should not be making commitments now to hold the election. When a decision is made, the government needs to be able to judge the ability of local authorities to run the elections and safety should be the only consideration.”

The costs of running elections can run into thousands of pounds and some councils have already expressed concern money could be wasted in printing ballot papers for a May 6 poll which is then scrapped.

In a statement, Ben Watts, the County Returning Officer for Kent, said: “We have been planning for some time for elections to be held in May, as arranged. We continue to work with colleagues in districts and boroughs along with our Director of Public Health and our health and safety team to prepare for safe and legally compliant COVID-secure elections.

“We support the County Councils Network in urging the government to make an early decision on whether elections can go ahead in May as planned.”

The Fenn Bell Inn, Zoo and Polling Station in 2019. Picture: Chris Davey
The Fenn Bell Inn, Zoo and Polling Station in 2019. Picture: Chris Davey

The election must be called before March 29 with most expecting it to be formally started on March 17.

Candidates then have until April 8 to complete nomination forms. Details of who is standing and for which party are published on April 9.

The Cabinet Office has recently advised parties standing candidates in any poll they should not go canvassing or distribute leaflets during the lockdown, saying that door-to-door canvassing was not essential.

The costs of holding elections can run into hundreds of thousands of pounds, depending on the size of the electorate.

However, the potential to reduce those costs is limited with returning officers needed for each district as well as recruiting enough counting staff.

According to recommended fees, each polling station must have a presiding officer who receives £226; polling station inspectors are paid the same amount for overseeing ten polling stations; while casual staff who count votes are on average paid about £10 an hour.

In addition to staffing costs, councils also have to pay hire fees for polling stations.

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