Loss of 2020 Return Day doesn’t help political unity

The ceremonial 2020 hatchet is prepared for burial, as a few elected officials from the Georgetown area put together a smaller version of Return Day on Nov. 5. The ceremony took only half an hour but still included the reading of the results (by Sussex County Sheriff Robert T. Lee rather than the town crier) and the burying of the hatchet. Special to the Delaware State News/Chuck Snyder

DOVER — Has Return Day ever been needed more than this year?

For centuries, Delawareans of all political stripes have come together two days after each election to bury the hatchet, both literally and figuratively, in Georgetown. The long-standing tradition is a way for politicians and regular citizens to move past the animosity of the campaign season, recognizing that despite our differences, we are all Delawareans and Americans.
This year, with political polarization and tensions perhaps greater than they have been since the Civil War, it seems almost cruel the pandemic stood in the way of the biennial gathering.

“We need Return Day this year more than ever,” Gov. John Carney lamented on Election Day.

The event is a key part of what enables Delaware officials to work together, Gov. Carney said, expressing hope something symbolic could be arranged in the spirit of unity.

For those not in the know, Return (not Returns) Day originates from Delaware’s early days as a state and marks the end of election season.

Although the exact date of the first event is not clear, it could have been as early as 1792, according to the Sussex County Return Day Committee. A 1791 law moved the county seat from Lewes to Georgetown and required votes to be cast there on election day. Two days later, voters could come back to Georgetown to hear the results — thus the name.

Individual voting precincts were set up in 1811, but the tradition continued,

Return Day, described by longtime Delaware journalist Celia Cohen as a “fair of democracy” in her book “Only in Delaware,” has received its share of national attention over the years, highlighted as one of many quirky traditions in a nation full of them.

“As far as we can tell we are the only people in the country that has this type of celebrating, with burying the hatchet,” Rosalie Walls, the committee president for 26 years, said in 2016.

“It is supposed to get rid of all of the bad things said about each other during the campaign. I don’t know whether we can guarantee that happening or not. But at least we’ve never heard of any of them putting the hatchet anywhere but in the sand.”

While those outside Delaware may gawk or ponder why their state doesn’t have a celebration of unity of its own, Return Day is one of the most beloved traditions here, especially in Sussex County.

“It did give a feeling that people were able to come together,” Sussex County Return Day Committee Vice President Jim Bowden said last week.

Vehicles from the Marvel Carriage Museum transport candidates through downtown Georgetown, while hundreds or even thousands of people watch from nearby sidewalks, balconies and grassy strips. Electoral foes become friends as individuals who sought the same office often ride together, yet another symbolic way of emphasizing unity.

The town crier reads the results of various races — though only the Sussex County results, because, as organizers often (jokingly?) note, Sussex is the only county that matters. The reading is followed by officials from several political parties literally burying a hatchet in a box of sand.

And of course, you can’t forget the ox roast and the various parties that take place around The Circle, where the freely flowing booze can help mend wounds caused by the election cycle.

This year, with public safety and the state’s COVID-related restrictions in mind, organizers decided to cancel Return Day rather than hold a scaled-down event. They’re confident the gathering can return in all its glory in 2022.

Still, some Sussex Countians felt something was better than nothing, and so a few elected officials from the Georgetown area put together a smaller version on Nov. 5. The ceremony took only half an hour but still included the reading of the results (by Sussex County Sheriff Robert T. Lee rather than the town crier) and the burying of the hatchet.

“The elected officials that represent the Georgetown area started getting lots of phone calls” after the event was canceled in September, Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, a Georgetown Republican, said on Nov. 5. “With this contentious election season, the people wanted a Return Day. They needed that sense of normalcy and to have this contentious year put behind them.”

University of Delaware communication professor Lindsay Hoffman agreed Return Day is a useful way of keeping politics civil, enabling partisans to see those on the other side as more than just enemies — something all too rare in recent years.

“People need to be reminded … of sort of who we are as humans,” she said.

David Redlawsk, a political science and international relations professor at the university, had a similar sentiment.

“Return Day has important roots in the idea that there are always winners and losers, and both have to come together to make things happen for the betterment of the country,” he wrote in an email.

“Our system really is designed around compromise in order to get things done. Our unwillingness to compromise in recent years has become dangerous. I hold some hope that President-elect Biden’s long history of pragmatism and outreach will help, but it won’t be easy under current circumstances.”