One in six voters would feel unsafe voting in-person in May’s local and devolved elections

Patrick EnglishResearch Manager
February 25, 2021, 12:15 PM UTC

One in four likely voters who usual cast their ballot in-person could be considering switching to another method

The government’s announcement that it intends to press ahead with local council, mayoralty, and London Assembly and Mayor elections this May despite ongoing coronavirus concerns has been met with a mixed response.

It now seems highly likely that both the ballot box contests planned for 2021 and the delayed 2020 elections will all take place simultaneously on 6th May this year.

The decision brings England in line with Scotland and Wales, where the devolved administrations had already indicated that the Scottish Parliament and Senedd elections would go ahead.  

The government have insisted that British democracy “should not be cancelled because of COVID”, but some – including local councils and their leadership – had called for a further delay to what is being dubbed as ‘Super Thursday’.

New data from YouGov can reveal that some potential voters are also concerned about safety surrounding COVID and the upcoming elections.

While 72% of likely voters suggest that they would feel ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ safe heading to a polling booth in May, more than one in six British voters (17%) feel they would be unsafe, citing concerns around social distancing, large crowds of people, and proper cleaning of equipment. Another 11% are not sure whether they would be safe or unsafe.

Labour voters are more likely to express concern about in-person voting than their Conservative counterparts (25% vs 15%), which is perhaps surprising given that Tories tend to be older and therefore more vulnerable to coronavirus. That said, older voters will be much more likely to have received their COVID-19 vaccines by May, so perhaps there is an ‘inoculation effect’ driving perceptions of safety at the polls.

Similarly, while our data suggest that around 25% of Remain voters from the 2016 EU Referendum are concerned about voting booth safety, the same is true for only 15% of Leave voters.

Of course, in-person voting is but one option by which a ballot may be cast, and other options such as proxy and mail-in voting look set to become the method of choice for many more voters in 2021.

While over three quarters (78%) of those likely voters who usually cast their ballot in person at British elections plan to continue exercising their ballot in this way, 8% of regular in-person voters now intending to switch to using Royal Mail to exercise their democratic right.  The remainder are still considering their options, or not planning to vote at all.

In all, while the majority of British voters would feel safe heading to the polls in-person in May, a substantial number do not. Labour voters and those who voted to Remain in the 2016 EU referendum are more likely to report feeling unsafe than Conservative or Leave voters, suggesting that partisanship and general support for (or trust in) the Government might be influencing safety concerns. According to these results, electoral officials and administrations could well be faced with a sizeable increase in the number of voters opting to exercise their ballot by post (or other alternatives to in-person voting).

See full results here