OPINION by Patrick Harvie MSP
Others have already said that, in these extraordinary circumstances, we should all be seized of the priority of ensuring that our election can be carried out in a safe manner and in a way in which people can have confidence in the process.
None of us would welcome the idea of a delay, but we need to be conscious of the fact that there would have been a pretty clear scenario if our election had fallen to be due in May this year instead of May next year. We would have had to delay it in those circumstances.
We all hope that, in May 2021, we will be in a much better position in respect of the Covid outbreak than we were in May this year or, indeed, than we have been since. However, we simply do not know what situation we will face in May.
That is why we need legislation that is open to a range of different scenarios, and that is able to ensure that our election can take place safely and that we can have confidence in it.
That is one of the reasons why I am cautious about the projection on postal voting uptake of 40 per cent at the upper end.
It might be that we all feel as a society that we are moving beyond the most dangerous period of the Covid outbreak and that postal voting uptake might not be significantly higher, but that is not guaranteed.
We need to be willing to prepare for the possibility that postal voting demand might not only reach 40 per cent but exceed it.
I am still concerned about what will happen if the Government decides, even on the advice of independent electoral administrators, that it is necessary to bring the postal voting deadline even further forward.
We could be in the position of turning people away from a postal vote simply because they did not register early enough. I am concerned about that possibility.
We should do everything that we can between now and then to ensure that we maximise the capacity for postal voting, so that we can meet whatever demand will be created.
The public opinion polling that led to that 40 per cent estimate was done at a different time and we do not know what the circumstances will be between now and the election in May.
There has been some discussion about one and two-day elections. I do not think that my party has a formal policy, but I will say openly that my personal view is that I am open to the idea of holding elections on multiple days, regardless of the current circumstances with the pandemic.
There is a good argument that we should be open to looking at a wide range of options for increasing voter turnout, and holding voting on multiple days is one option that should be tried. I am reluctant to see that being taken out of the bill, even if the bill is specifically designed for the current circumstances.
I appreciate the Minister’s position in saying that a decision on multiple-day voting in the May election should be based on advice, and that we should not use the upcoming election as an opportunity to experiment.
I think that the case for multiple-day elections should be revisited in the longer term. Generally, elections ought to be able to take place on multiple days.
Lastly, as both Miles Briggs [Conservative] and Anas Sarwar [Labour] reflected, there are bad lessons to be learned from around the world: none of us should want changes to our election arrangements to lead to the kind of fear mongering and conspiracy theories that we saw in the United States.
We all have a responsibility—not just in passing the legislation, but in the way in which we conduct our debates between now and the election—to demonstrate to the Scottish people that they can have confidence in their election system, and to never lean into the kind of fear mongering that we have seen being used for such unpleasant political ends by the Trump campaign.
- Patrick Harvie, who was educated at Dumbarton Academy, is joint leader of the Green Party in the Scottish Parliament.