House votes to temporarily expand voting by mail

DOVER — Meeting virtually for the third time in its august history, the Delaware House of Representatives on Thursday passed legislation expanding voting by mail for the remainder of 2020 due to COVID.

By a 25-13 tally, with two not voting and one absent, lawmakers opted to codify and grow vote-by-mail provisions put in place by Gov. John Carney earlier this year. The bill now goes to the Senate, which has until the legislature departs for the year on July 1 to pass it.

The vote fell along party lines and followed several hours of sometimes tense discussion, an indication of the serious gap between Democrats and Republicans not just on the subject of voting but on the threat posed by coronavirus.

Delawareans currently are allowed to vote by mail in the July 7 presidential primary thanks to orders imposed by the governor under the state of emergency. The bill approved by the House ensures those protections will continue through the end of the calendar year as long as the measure passes the Senate.

House Bill 346 instructs the Department of Elections to mail ballot applications to all eligible voters ahead of the Sept. 15 primary and Nov. 3 general contest, using the same long-standing system in place for absentee voters.

Those hoping to participate would fill out and return the application and eventually receive a ballot. Postage would be prepaid by the state.

Voters would be required to swear their vote is legitimate, with a violation being grounds for a criminal charge.

Ballots would have to be returned by but could not be counted until election day.

In total, Thursday’s proceedings took four hours, with nearly all of that spent on absentee voting and two bills relating to corporate law. Democrats defeated three GOP amendments on the voting proposal — requiring photographic identification and a sworn statement from voters they did not take part in the election any other way and instructing the election commissioner to keep every polling place open — mostly along strict party lines after lengthy debate.

The vote came after a request from Minority Leader Danny Short, R-Seaford, to table the voting bill and allow it to be heard in a special previously scheduled House Administration Committee forum Monday failed.

Democrats shot down GOP requests for greater securities against voter fraud, with Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear, saying she is “very confident that no vote will be counted twice.”

Election Commissioner Anthony Albence spoke several times in response to questions from lawmakers, explaining the department still intends to operate the same number of polling locations.

The bills were heard under suspension of rules, a procedural step that enables lawmakers to fast-track legislation and is generally used when time is of the essence. Several Republicans voted against suspending the rules requiring an in-person committee hearing and added time before a floor vote, arguing the break from the normal rules due to the COVID crisis is unwelcome and unnecessary.

About half the Republican caucus spoke, with members expressing concerns about voter fraud and about contravening the constitution’s provisions on elections.

“I would love to vote for this bill, I just don’t want to feel like we’re making it easy for people to cheat,” said Rep. Mike Ramone, R-Pike Creek Valley.

Rep. Ruth Briggs King, R-Georgetown, had a similar sentiment, urging her colleagues to ensure every vote counts — once.

The debate eventually descended into a referendum on coronavirus, with House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, at one point stopping discussion to redirect the subject back to the bill rather than “who believes in the virus and who does not believe in the virus,” as he put it.

After two-and-a-half hours, the House voted and passed the bill.

“Let’s not make Delawareans choose between their health and their right to vote,” Rep. Longhurst said.

A May poll from Gallup found 64% of Americans support voting by mail this November, although there is a huge gulf between Democrats and Republicans. Per the poll, Americans are almost evenly divided on whether voting by mail increases fraudulent ballots.

Other polls have found a divide when considering partisan attitudes toward coronavirus.

Representatives voted Thursday from their home offices or similar locations, with the House speaker, minority leader and a few key staffers in the capitol to keep things running. Aside from participants occasionally forgetting to unmute themselves, the session appeared to proceed smoothly.

The chambers approved virtual meetings at the end of May, almost three months after the last legislative hearing, and Thursday marked the third time the full House has convened remotely.

These online sessions represent the first time the General Assembly has gathered outside Legislative Hall since the building opened in 1933.

The meetings are conducted through Zoom and can be viewed live through the caucus’ Facebook pages or the chamber’s YouTube pages. The YouTube accounts can be reached at bit.ly/3c3xZ3H (Senate) and bit.ly/2LYZf8G (House), though links are also shared on the legislature’s website.

Legislative Hall has been closed since March 12, the day after Delaware’s first confirmed coronavirus case was announced.

Hundreds of people, ranging from legislators to lobbyists to reporters and more, enter the capitol on a typical session day, which officials say would create a dangerous environment should business continue as normal. That’s especially true considering around one-third of the building’s 62 members are at least 65 years old, meaning they fall into the high-risk category for COVID-19.

The full General Assembly normally gathers about 45 times through the first six months of the calendar year before breaking until the following year, a far cry from the nine in-person and five virtual meeting days the chambers have had in 2020 (and that doesn’t even adjust for the fact only one chamber is meeting virtually per day, unlike normal).

Both chambers will convene again next week and likely vote on the budget bills, which must be passed by July 1.