There is no feasible way to allow people required to isolate to vote in the local authority elections this week, the Infrastructure Minister has said.
Tim Baker was asked in an urgent question by Douglas East MHK Clare Barber what is being done to ensure those forced to isolate because of a positive PCR test will be able to vote.
However the Minister said that within the current legislation, there is no way for the gov to allow additional proxy or absent ballots as it is too late.
Mr Baker said: ‘As members will be aware, the local authorities are going through their general election process. The majority of the seats have been filled uncontested however some of the seats are to be determined by way of a vote which will take place on Thursday. The deadline to apply for an absent vote is seven clear days from the local authority election day. For this set of elections, that would therefore be Wednesday July 14.
‘This means that if the voter is not registered by this time then they cannot take advantage of the absent vote process. Within the current legislation, there are no other mechanisms to enable people to vote. This will be the last local election held within the current legislation, the new Act has been enacted and is due to be used for local elections from 2022. This will make provision for alternative mechanisms such as proxy voting for the local authority elections. Within the current situation, a range of options have been explored by officers within the DoI, Cabinet Office and AG’s Chambers, regrettably none of these options were considered viable.’
In a supplementary question, Mrs Barber asked whether the gov had considered using the UK emergency proxy vote system where proxies are made available for people who can’t vote up until 5pm on polling day. However Mr Baker said that while he was aware of those options in the UK, they were not applicable on the island due to the current rules. He said he was ‘pretty confident’ that this would be resolved for future elections.
Douglas Central MHK Chris Thomas noted that Mr Baker was given the question, having been moved over from the Chief Minister and asked whether it was possible to relax the public health regulations for those in isolation to be allowed to vote in a safe way. Mr Baker said that while that was considered, it was ‘not deemed feasible due to the public health risk to people voting and the staff working on the elections’. He added that it was technically possible but would require new legislation to be brought forward to allow for it. ‘Coupled with the need to train returning officers, this was deemed to be too challenging at this late stage.’ Mr Baker added.
Mrs Barber pushed further and asked Mr Baker why a socially distanced polling station couldn’t be utilised to allow for people to vote. She said: ‘We do run a risk, particularly in Douglas East, of people being completely excluded from the democratic process and on margins that we see in Douglas East, with five votes winning or losing an election, this could fundamentally change the result and damage the democratic process.’
Mr Baker responded: ‘I think it is interesting that the honourable member has highlighted her constituency because I don’t think it is a widespread issue and indeed out of the 28 local authority elections, only nine are being contested, with 19 uncontested and so actually the biggest challenge around these local elections is getting people to stand. It is a very positive step for that particular constituency to have a competitive election and it is obviously disappointing that this issue has affected it. In terms of the numbers, the numbers of people are relatively small, that are currently required to isolate. I’m informed by the Minister for Health and Social Care that within the IM1 and IM2 postcodes, there are currently 337 people, in total, including children, that are affected by this restriction. That’s across the whole of those postcodes and clearly with the relatively modest turnout in those elections the actual number of votes that are really going to be impacted here is going to be relatively modest.
‘However, I accept the honourable member’s point that any restriction on people voting is unwelcome, I think it is very late in the day to start putting in place additional polling stations and insuring that the integrity of the voting process around that is going to be guaranteed. Indeed we’ve already had reports of polling and election counting staff being affected and their availability being reduced as part of that. Now that is for the local authorities and the returning officer to address. I’m happy to take the suggestion forward, but I do think it is late in the day to be able to deliver something like that, particularly on a widespread scale and indeed I don’t think the need is there on a widespread scale.’
Mr Baker went on to say that he totally agreed with Mr Thomas’ sentiment that democracy is important and that no one wanted to prevent someone who wanted to vote from having to do so, but that like dealing with Covid ‘it is a reality and there are difficult decisions that CoMin and Tynwald have had to grapple with’. He also again promised to take the issue further but said he was still bound by the existing legislation.
The Youth Vote
Mrs Barber said having encouraged people to stand, people, including at least one of the Douglas candidates, were now being told they can’t vote. She said: ‘I feel like there is a bias in this against younger people, those that aren’t yet twoplustwo, they are the ones more likely to be affected by this. It hasn’t come as a bolt out of the blue as something totally unexpected, I’m disappointed really that this hasn’t be considered, to find a solution before we’ve got to the end when we’ve even got candidates who aren’t going to be able to vote now because they’re isolating, certainly again within Douglas East.’ She again asked Mr Baker to look at how the issue can be resolved.
The Minister again said that he would again take the issue forward. He added: ‘We have to be really careful here because if we start making up rules on the fly, how can we do that in Douglas East and Douglas Central, why not some of the other areas? This is difficult and if we are going to make any changes, we’re going to have to be able to deliver a voting process that has the maximum confidence around it. I don’t know if we’re able to do anything more for them than we’re already doing but as I’ve already said, I’m happy to take it away to consider it with officers.’
Garff MHK Daphne Caine said the issue was not limited to Douglas, but also in Garff where the Lonan Ward is due to have an election. She said that residents in that area are isolating so are unable to vote and asked if it was not possible to extend the absent vote date or if it was possible to enable the new elections act. However Mr Baker said that would require a change in primary legislation which ‘clearly was not going to be practical in the timescale involved’.
Liberal Vannin leader Lawrie Hooper said that with the lower turnout in local elections leading to tight results, he asked if the Minister was expecting any legal challenges if a candidate was to lose by a small number of votes due to people being unable to attend a polling station. However Mr Baker said while he couldn’t argue with the sentiment of Mr Hooper’s word, he pointed out that in Ramsey, ‘there weren’t even enough candidates to fill the seats that were available which is a real shame’ he wouldn’t be drawn on hypothetical legal arguments.
He added: ‘I think the biggest danger has been the lack of interest in local authority elections, it is disappointing and it is frustrating that we’re in this situation. I’ve said several times I will look at this and see if there is anything further we can do.’
Manx Labour Party
Responding to the debate in Tynwald, the MLP has said that it considers ‘the disenfranchising of hundreds and potentially thousands of voters in the Local Authority elections this Thursday due to a lack of COVID planning absolutely unacceptable’.
A spokesperson said: ‘ It is unfair and undemocratic to exclude the hundreds of people who have been told to isolate and to give them no option for exercising their rights. We as an island have known that COVID is an ongoing threat for 18 months now and when the border restrictions eased recently the government stated that cases would go up. Our government chose to call this election, and now have a duty to ensure it is able to go ahead safely and fairly.
‘The right to vote within a fair and democratic society is sacrosanct and creating a situation where it would be illegal for people to exercise this right not only sets a dangerous precedent but creates a situation where the democratic legitimacy of the whole election can be brought into question. The party is calling on the public to contact their MHKs and demand immediate action on this. The election is on Thursday and there is already a system for absentee voting in place that can be expanded if there is the political drive to do so. While our focus is currently on the Local Authority elections we are additionally concerned about whether any contingency plans are in place for the General Election in two months time if we find ourselves in a similar situation.’