Bill would offer same-day voter registration, lift absentee voting restrictions

DOVER — Democratic lawmakers on Friday filed legislation that would expand voting access and move the state’s primary election to April.

House Bill 15 would eliminate the state’s restrictions on absentee voting, striking the specific list of reasons allowing an individual to vote remotely. The second leg of a constitutional amendment, it would add to the constitution a line stating, “The General Assembly shall enact general laws providing the circumstances, rules, and procedures by which registered voters may vote by absentee ballot.”

Last session’s version of the bill passed with bipartisan support.

House Bill 25 would authorize same-day voter registration, letting a Delawarean register and cast his or her ballot on Election Day. Current law sets the last day to register before an election as the “fourth Saturday prior to the date of the election.”

House Bill 30 is the latest effort to shift the date of Delaware’s primary election, currently the second Tuesday after the first Monday in September, to coincide with the April presidential primary, even in off years. Delaware holds its presidential primary on the fourth Tuesday in April.

The change would take effect in 2024.

According to the House Democratic caucus, Delaware must obtain a waiver for federal requirements for overseas and military absentee ballots because its primary is less than two months before the general election.

“These legislative priorities represent an effort to move Delaware’s elections into the 21st century and provide Delawareans with increased access to the polls,” Rep. David Bentz, a Christiana Democrat who is the primary sponsor of the absentee voting bill, said in a statement. “States across the country have already instituted many of these initiatives and it’s time Delaware take the same steps to modernize its elections and get up to speed with the rest of the country.”

A study of the 2018 elections from the U.S. Elections Project and Nonprofit VOTE found that states that made it easier to vote had greater electoral participation. In particular, seven of the top 10 states with the highest turnout had same-day registration.

“In 2020, Delaware had the latest state primary in the country, just seven weeks before Election Day. 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,” Rep. Stephanie T. Bolden, a Wilmington Democrat who introduced the primary date bill, said in a statement.

“It creates confusion for some voters because they have to cast ballots in a separate presidential primary, state primary, and general election. We owe it to residents to do whatever we can to improve our electoral process, and I’m confident that this is a common-sense move in the right direction. It will reduce confusion and streamline the electoral process.”

This marks the fourth consecutive session Rep. Bolden has tried to move the primary date. In each of the past three sessions, the measure passed the House but died in the Senate.

Also introduced Friday were bills that would require schools to provide free feminine hygiene products in girls’ bathrooms, increase the minimum penalty for possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony from three to five years (five to 10 years for individuals with two prior felony convictions) and create a trust to fund clean-water projects.

The General Assembly returns Jan. 12, though at least the first few weeks will likely be held virtually.