While Delaware Democrats want to change what the state constitution says about absentee ballots and allow same-day voter registration, among other things, Republicans want to allow for no-fault absentee ballot use when the General Assembly opens in January.
The Democrats position their moves “as part of an ongoing effort to remove barriers and increase participation in Delaware elections.” Republicans say there’s no need to change the constitution or have expensive mail-in ballots when the state can easily shift its absentee ballot rules.
“These legislative priorities represent an effort to move Delaware’s elections into the 21st century and provide Delawareans with increased access to the polls,” said Rep. David Bentz, D-Christiana, in a press release.
State Rep. Danny Short, R-Seaford, said removing the constitutional amendment about absentee voting is a bad idea.
“I’m not in agreement that we should change the constitutional requirement of how it’s put into place so that we can willy nilly on a majority vote change the mechanisms of elections,” said Short, the House minority leader. “This doesn’t matter whether the majority is Democrat or Republican.”
Rancor over the way voting is handled rose during the last session when Democrats pushed through a bill allowing mail-in voting for anyone because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The ayes and nays fell across party lines, with Democrats supporting it, and House Republicans arguing it wasn’t needed and could be used for fraud, echoing the national Republican stance. Most Republican House senators voted for it.
The vote-by-mail bill expires at the end of the year. Mailing out notices that ballots were available and then mailing the ballots themselves cost the state $800,000 of COVID-19 money. The cash also disappears at the end of the year.
Democrats point to the 70 percent turnout in the general election as proof that voting by mail worked and was needed. Short said the turnout proves how interested people are in elections and being able to exercise their sacred right to vote.
Short also says that there was a lot of concern on both sides about how the mail-in ballots worked and whether everybody’s vote was counted.
“States across the country have already instituted many of these initiatives,” Bentz said, “and it’s time Delaware take the same steps to modernize its elections and get up to speed with the rest of the country.”
Short says he agrees that the voting and election procedures need modernizing.
“If astronauts can vote securely from space, we ought to be using a system that’s hack-proof and down the line gives us the latest advances to be able to do that,” Short said. “We should be able to securely cast votes in a far more technologically advanced way, but people have to be comfortable with that, and we’re not there yet for everybody.”
Among the bills expected to be filed:
Changing the constitution
Bentz’s House Bill 15 is the second leg of a constitutional amendment that would eliminate from the Delaware Constitution the limitations as to when an individual may vote by absentee ballot and give the power to the Legislature to control the circumstances, rules and procedures for absentee voting.
Changing the constitution requires identical bills to pass both houses of the legislature in two different sessions. The press release said that both houses last year passed the bills with bipartisan support.
“Right now, there are only a handful of narrow circumstances under which voters can request an absentee ballot,” said Sen. Stephanie Hansen, D-Middletown. “The Delaware General Assembly voted once to lift those restrictions and we should do so again to finally give our constituents more choices in how they cast their ballots.”
If the amendment is removed, any additional changes to absentee voting would only need a simple majority in both the House and Senate. There are enough Democrats to easily pass things, no matter what the opposition says.
Short said House Bill 15 will need House Republicans to pass, which means legislators will at least have a conversation, and passage there is not a guarantee.
Short said he was the only House Republican who served in a majority Republican legislature. Some questionable things were passed then, just because they could be, he said.
Issues as important as elections should demand a higher two-thirds majority vote count and not a simple majority, he said, to protect the minority opinion.
The higher majority requires conversation and compromise, he said.
“It’s a fairness issue,” Short said.
Moving state primaries
House Bill 30, sponsored by Rep. Stephanie T. Bolden, D-Wilmington East, would move Delaware’s state primary elections to coincide with its presidential primary elections in April.
Republican Short is a cosponsor of this bill. He says it will save the state about $1 million and allow the winner of the primary more time to get out an campaign.
Delaware now holds its presidential primaries for both major parties in April but the state primaries in September. The change would take effect with the presidential election in 2024.
Bolden believes the bill also would reduce voter confusion and increase turnout.
“In 2020, Delaware had the latest state primary in the country, just seven weeks before Election Day,” Bolden said. “That is an unfair and untenable situation for everyone involved: the candidates, the voters and the elections staff who have to run two statewide elections within less than two months.”
Delaware’s late state primary forces election officials to obtain waivers for federal requirements for overseas and military absentee ballots, the press release said.
Same-day voter registration
House Bill 25, sponsored by Rep. Sherry Dorsey Walker, D-Wilmington South, would allow same-day voter registration in Delaware. That would allow an eligible person to sign up to vote and then cast his or her ballot on the same day.
With all the concern and confusion over mail-in ballots, Short said the state should not jump into this yet because there’s just not enough safeguards in place. While he says the Delaware Department of Elections did a great job, he also believes that many glitches popped up and concerns need to be addressed.
“I think you have to have a system in place that gives security and comfort that someone can’t game the system,” Short said.
Delaware now requires residents to register at least a month before an election. Walker said that disenfranchises potential voters.
“This is an outdated and unfair practice,” Walker said in the press release. “Election Day registration has existed in several states for decades and is proven to safely and effectively increase voter turnout.”
Under HB 25, a person would be able to register to vote at his or her polling place on the day of a presidential or state primary or general or special election by showing a valid government-issued photo identification card, a current utility bill, bank statement, paycheck or other government document. Those are the same criteria required for a person registering to vote.
Democrats cite a National Conference of State Legislatures report that says same-day registration has existed in Maine, Minnesota and Wisconsin since the mid-1970s. Since then, more than 20 states and the District of Columbia have adopted it.
The Democrats also say a study of the 2018 elections found that seven of the top 10 states with the highest turnout offered same-day voter registration.
State Reps. Mike Ramone, R-Pike Creek, and Bryan Shupe, R-Milford, plan to propose a change to the state absentee ballot laws that would allow anyone to get an absentee ballot for any reason. Right now, a vote has to specify one of a few reasons, although this year COVID-19 was added as a reason to get one.
Short said he doesn’t think that will be the only proposal coming from Republicans.
“When you say Republicans, there’s a whole host of people and everybody doesn’t necessarily have the same opinion,” Short said.