Councils are facing “massive administrative challenges” to be prepared for European parliamentary elections, without knowing if they will go ahead.
The possibility of elections having to be held on 23 May increased dramatically on Friday after MPs again rejected the prime minister’s Brexit deal.
Theresa May said this meant the UK would likely have to ask the EU for an extension beyond the 12 April deadline, which if granted made it “almost certain” European elections would need to be held.
However, speaking to LGC before the vote, Peter Stanyon, chief executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators, said the government had advised councils to “do whatever contingency planning is necessary” but not to incur costs as “you won’t be reimbursed for them if there is no election”.
This, Mr Stanyon said, put councils in an “uncomfortable position”.
Mr Stanton added: “If a poll is required, it’s a massive logistical exercise for local authorities to undertake in a short space of time, so low level contingence planning must take place now. Local authorities are frustrated.”
Some returning officers are preparing for both European elections and council elections at the same time, which Mr Stanyon says requires a “massive administrative challenge that local authorities will be scrambling to make sure they can deliver in such a short timescale”.
“What would usually take six months of planning would be constrained into six weeks, putting them under intense pressure,” he added.
Ian Miller, returning officer for Wyre Forest DC, wrote to the Cabinet Office on Friday to “plead” with government to commit to reimbursing the costs of preparation.
In a letter to Chloe Smith, minister for the constitution, he said the government could ”no longer reasonably adopt the position” that the elections definitely will not happen.
“I thus regret having to write to you again to plead with you to confirm that the government will reimburse costs incurred by returning officers on booking venues for polling stations and counts…whether or not the elections are actually held.”
Andrew Muter, who acted as a returning officer for 11 years and was Newark and Sherwood DC chief executive until last year, said district councils typically spend hundreds of thousands of pounds organising EU elections.
He added councils should by now be doing a “big chunk” of preparations, including booking polling stations and finalising staffing agreements.
Mr Muter also said there is a greater risk of mistakes being made if preparations are rushed and recommended councils should check their liability insurance covers for breaches of electoral law.
“The risk of problems occurring and of making mistakes is significantly greater than in planned election periods,” he said. “The returning officer – who in most cases is a council’s chief executive - are personally accountable and potentially liable to being charged with serious election breaches.”
Talk of an early general election is also now growing, which Mr Muter warned would make the process for returning officers “about as crazy as it gets”.
Mr Stanyon also warned that people with dual nationality must be sent a ECC6 form so they can register to cast their vote in the UK if they wish but some councils are not prepared for this.
“With some councils in London, you’re talking about 30,000 EU nationals – you need a very quick turnaround,” he said.
The Cabinet Office did not respond to LGC’s request for comment.