POOR winter weather and the impact it could have on polling in Shetland and transporting ballot boxes is “high on the agenda” as plans get underway for a general election in the middle of December.
MPs agreed at Westminster on Tuesday for an election to be held on 12 December, with the House of Lords expected to ratify the decision today.
Shetland Islands Council returning officer Jan Riise confirmed that there could be delays in counting votes in the joint Northern Isles constituency if bad weather meant that planes and ferries could not transport ballot boxes.
General elections are usually held in the spring or summer, with the last December vote taking place in 1923.
The location of the Orkney and Shetland count for the snap election – called in a bid to break the Brexit deadlock – has not yet been confirmed, but it is likely to follow precedence and be held in Kirkwall and not Lerwick.
This would mean that ballot boxes would need to be flown from Shetland to Orkney after polls close at 10pm – possibly in a winter gale.
Ballot boxes from the North Isles would also need to be transported by council ferry, as they usually are, to the Shetland mainland.
“Always with election planning you’ve got a risk register and you identify all the possible risks,” Riise explained.
“High on our agenda for that one, given the date, is the potential for inclement weather and the effect that might have on our planning.”
He said issues on the day could include making sure Shetland’s polling stations can actually open.
“If you end up with a blizzard the night before, heaven knows how easy that’s going to be,” Riise said.
“What we’ll be trying to make sure is that people opening polling stations live close to the polling station itself, so they’re not travelling great distances in the morning.
“I’ve already spoken to roads about early gritting, and probably pre-gritting the night before if there’s any prospect of icy weather.”
There is also the fact that many people will be casting their vote in the darkness due to minimal daylight in the winter.
The returning officer stressed that there are “rigorous” plans in place for transporting ballot boxes from polling stations across Shetland to the count.
He said the decision on whether ferries could run in bad weather rests with the skipper.
Riise added that if the weather does not allow a Loganair plane full of ballot boxes to travel from Shetland to Orkney, then “there will just be a delay”.
“We’re not going to put humans and property at risk just for the sake of an early declaration,” he said.
Riise explained that the expectation by law is that a count will commence within four hours of the close of polls.
“If you can’t do that, the returning officer has to record and publicly disclose why the count didn’t commence on time.
“Our intention from the outset is to have the count completed in as orderly and professional a manner as possible, but without putting lives at risk.”
Shetland has close to 3,000 people registered for postal voting in advance of the big day, mainly from the outer isles, and this should mean the most remote communities will escape any weather woes.
Regardless of the possible weather issues, Riise said the planning for the election – from Shetland’s side – is “already quite advanced”.
Discussions will be held soon with Orkney’s returning officer and Kirkwall as the count venue is expected to be confirmed.
Election counts in the Northern Isles have historically been held in Kirkwall, although in 2015 there was a break in tradition when it took place in Lerwick.
That meant that the next scheduled election was destined for Orkney anyway as the island groups are likely to take it turn about.
Snap election counts are also generally held in Orkney.
Riise, meanwhile, admitted that work preparing for elections in Shetland this year has been “relentless”.
There was the European Parliament election in May before Shetland elected its new MSP in August after Tavish Scott stepped down.
Two council by-elections are being held on 7 November, with the general election following in December.
“This is now for Shetland the fourth election in a year where we expected none,” Riise said.
“The thing we’re having to juggle here is the impact that has on other work.”
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