Christmas arguments may sometimes include debates about whether to watch the Queen’s Speech or not; whether stockings belong on the fireplace or the end of the bed, but they now include whether to relinquish school buildings to serve as polling stations.
Education Minister Gavin Williamson started a Christmas-spat with a letter to all local authority chief executives asking them not cause the cancellation of nativity plays or carol concerts.
It brought a forceful response from the returning officers. The Association for Electoral Administrators wrote in response that the minister’s comments were ‘unhelpful’. The letter came, they argued, after many polling stations had been booked and ‘members have been working tirelessly to negotiate access to all venues designated as polling places, which is both time consuming and difficult.’
I discussed the issue on LBC with Nick Ferrari.
As someone who has children at school, I can appreciate the challenge for parents and for teachers. When the date is the diary, childcare arrangements are intricately made around it; and teaching plans are fixed.
But this is an election which will affect the futures of the children in those schools much more than anyone else. What’s decided on Brexit, the NHS and the environment will shape their future more than anyone else. It is therefore vitally important that the election is well delivered. Citizens need to have confidence in the result and no one should be unfairly disadvantaged in their attempts to cast their ballot.
For these reasons, polling stations are carefully selected following consultation processes. There is a formal process called a Polling Station Review in which all possible locations are identified and assessed. There is a consultation and an opportunity for citizens and parties to respond and even appeal the chosen sites.
This is an important process because the location of the polling station can have a major effect on election. If voters are asked to travel long distances, then they might be less likely to vote. If polling stations do not meet accessibility requirements that the system will be failing many electors. School buildings tend to be very equipped with both of these criteria. Forthcoming research (with Alistair Clark) shows that returning officers already struggle to find suitable places even prior to challenge of finding allocation at Christmas.
Such can be the importance of polling station location, the history of electoral administration tells us that a classic trick of many politicians has been to deliberately make late changes to polling station locations. This can create a sense of chaos leaving voters unaware of where to vote. Even better, why not reduce the number of polling stations in areas where your opposition has its support located? These were both common strategies for Republican and Democrat politicians trying to suppress black votes in pre-1965 US. Sadly, these strategies are often used around the world day.
The UK has not seen these types of problems because due process has slowed the selection of polling station location down. The government wanted to have a December election, so it has to accept that disruption will occur. And this might include school plays.
Now that an election has been called, schools may therefore need to give way. And in the spirit of Christmas, the education secretary should support highly pressured electoral officials in delivering the election.