Democrats push same-day voter registration

DOVER — Democratic lawmakers last week introduced legislation that would make Delaware the 19th state with same-day voter registration.

Under the bill, Delawareans could sign up to vote and cast a ballot on the same day.

“Our goal as a society should be to encourage more people to be part of the electoral process, not less,” main sponsor House Majority Whip John Viola, D-Newark, said in a statement. “Right now, we have an arbitrary deadline to register to vote of three weeks before an election.

“Some people, often young people or those who just moved to the state, don’t think to register to vote until it’s right before the election, and by then it’s too late. Election Day registration has been around for decades and is proven to safely and effectively increase voter turnout, so it’s time for Delaware to take this step forward.”

House Bill 400 would allow an individual to register at his or her polling place by displaying government-issued identification, a utility bill, bank statement, paycheck or other government document containing that person’s name and address. The same documents are currently required to register by mail.

An individual who is not registered could determine their polling place by contacting the Department of Elections.

Currently, the deadline to register is the fourth Saturday before the election. For this year’s Nov. 6 general election, that deadline is Oct. 13.

The bill would not affect individuals wishing to change their registration. The last day ahead of the primary in which someone can change their party affiliation is the final Saturday in May. The primary is generally the second Tuesday after the first Monday in September, but will be held on Sept. 6, a Thursday, this year.

A nearly identical measure to the one introduced last week passed the House in 2013 solely on Democratic support but never received a vote in the Senate.

Delaware allows individuals who are U.S. citizens and have not been convicted of select felonies to register online, by mail, in-person at any one of a number of state offices or at voter registration drives.

While Republicans often cite concerns about voter fraud, Elections Commissioner Elaine Manlove said such misconduct is virtually nonexistent in Delaware.

She said the Department of Elections would be able to handle same-day registration, although it would have to work out a few issues, such as to how ensure no felons prohibited from voting cast ballots. The most likely option, she said, would be for poll workers to require anyone seeking to register on an election day to sign a form indicating they are legally able to vote. Lying on the form would be grounds for a criminal charge.

Ms. Manlove said the agency sends out postcards to individuals who are eligible but not registered to vote every summer before a general election. After mailing about 26,000 postcards when the initiative started in either 2008 or 2010, she said, the department circulated approximately 2,400 in 2016.

“We really do think we’re getting everybody registered to vote that wants to vote,” Ms. Manlove said.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, same-day registration increases turnout by about 5 percent.

Also pending in the General Assembly are measures to allow early voting and move the primary election. If House Bill 90 passes, polling places would be open “For at least 10 days, up to and including the Saturday and Sunday immediately prior to any” election.

House Bill 89 would move the primary to April to coincide with the presidential primary, even in off-year elections. That bill passed the House last year but has not received a vote on the Senate floor.

Juvenile justice

By separate 20-1 votes, the Senate sent to Gov. John Carney Thursday two bills dealing with juvenile justice. Gov. Carney’s office did not respond to an email asking if the governor will sign the bills.

House Bill 306 changes when youths are tried as adults for a gun crime. Currently, anyone older than 15 charged with possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony is treated as an adult and tried in Superior Court rather than Family Court.

The bill lifts the minimum age one year and requires an evidentiary hearing where the Superior Court must find “proof positive or presumption great” to try a juvenile in that court.

House Bill 307 removes most minimum mandatory sentences for juveniles in Family Court, seeking to give judges more freedom in sentencing and to treat teenagers with a lighter hand.

Under House Bill 307, the state is “not just locking somebody up and throwing away the key without any discretion at all,” main sponsor Rep. J.J. Johnson, D-New Castle, said.

It would retain minimum mandatory sentences of six months for a first offense and one year for a second offense of first-degree robbery, possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony and possession of a firearm by a person prohibited.

Juveniles accused of some serious crimes, such as rape and murder, are tried in the Superior Court, where they may still face minimum mandatories depending on the offense.

Both bills were modified by Rep. Johnson after discussions with the Department of Justice.

While the two measures passed the House with no opposition and received strong support in the Senate, one senator did speak out Thursday, saying they would endanger public safety.

“I don’t like the direction we’re heading in juvenile justice,” Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover, said. “I think perhaps the pendulum is swinging too far in one direction.”

While Rep. Johnson expressed a desire to offer a stronger safety net for youth, with the goal of keeping them off a path toward becoming lifelong offenders, Sen. Bonini urged his colleagues to vote against the proposals.

“As soon as you step outside the advocacy community for real people out there, they’re not that concerned about losing people to the cracks, they’re concerned about the safety of their communities,” he said.

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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