Same-day registration and early voting pass Delaware House

DOVER — The Delaware House of Representatives on Thursday approved two bills that would expand voting rights by allowing early voting and same-day registration. Both bills passed solely on Democratic support. They now go to the Senate.

House Bill 400, which passed 22-18 with one absent, would allow an individual to register to vote on election day at a polling place. A person would be required to provide identification or another document displaying his or her name and address, such as a utility bill, paycheck, bank statement or government document.

Approved by a 25-15 margin, with one member absent, House Bill 90 would let Delawareans cast ballots in elections for state, county and Wilmington offices “at least” 10 days before the actual date.

The election commissioner would designate polling places open ahead of time for early voting. The measure would take effect in 2022.

“We as a society should be encouraging more people to vote, not trying to make it harder for them to participate in the electoral process,” said Majority Whip John Viola, a Newark Democrat who sponsored House Bill 400.

Gov. John Carney supports the bills, according to a spokesman, and the official Delaware Democratic Party platform calls for early voting and same-day registration.

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

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

House Bill 400 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.

Voting access often falls along party lines, and Thursday was no exception. Some GOP lawmakers raised concerns the measures could encourage voter fraud, unfairly swing elections and swamp the Department of Elections with more work on election day.

19dsn lawmakers Rich Collins by .

Rep. Rich Collins

“It would seem to me it would be obvious that some candidates, once this bill passes, would literally have a bus and just go round up people … I can tell you right now, if I had the capability to do it, that would be a standardized technique,” Rep. Rich Collins, a Millsboro Republican, said of the same-day registration proposal.

Election Commissioner Elaine Manlove, called to testify in response to questions from Republicans, said the measure would not have a big impact on the agency’s operations and would not result in large increases in voter fraud.

“I don’t expect there to be huge numbers coming in on Election Day” to register, she said, touting the state’s success in getting people signed up to vote.

Ahead of each election, the department mails postcards to every individual who is eligible to vote but not registered. According to Ms. Manlove, the number sent out has gone down from around 26,000 when the initiative started in either 2008 or 2010 (she could not remember the year) to about 2,400 in 2016.

If the bill passes, Delawareans would have to state they do not have a disqualifying felony to register and vote on the same day. Lying about being eligible to vote would be grounds for a criminal charge.

However, should someone ineligible to vote do so, the state would be unable to invalidate their vote at that time, a sticking point for opponents. Republicans noted elections can come down to just a handful of votes, citing the 2014 Kent County recorder of deeds race, which saw Betty Lou McKenna defeat La Mar Gunn by two votes after several recounts.

Rep. Mike Ramone, a Pike Creek Valley Republican, proposed using paper ballots for individuals who register and vote on the same day to allow the department to easily throw out any invalid votes.

“It would enhance everyone’s comfort that there’s no way they’d vote, there’s no way they’d be a felon and if they are, we have the ability” to nullify it, he said.

Ms. Manlove noted that would require the bill be amended.

As part of a pilot program to investigate potential issues, Delaware officials worked with four other states to examine voter fraud in the 2016 election and found no issues in the First State, she said.

Rep. Ruth Briggs King, a Georgetown Republican, questioned if the bill would allow people with multiple addresses to vote more than once, to which Rep. Viola replied that someone could do that now.

Joining Republicans in opposing House Bill 400 were Democratic Reps. Helene Keeley, of Wilmington, and William Carson, of Smyrna.

The vote on House Bill 90 also split the chamber, with opponents focusing on the legislation’s legality.

Called up by Minority Leader Danny Short, a Seaford Republican, House attorney Ron Smith told representatives the bill would contradict the provision of the Delaware code spelling out the requirements for absentee voting.

19dsn lawmakers David Bentz by .

Rep. David Bentz

“You’re effectively gutting Article V Section 4A,” he said.

Delaware allows absentee voting only if an individual cannot make it to his or her polling place on Election Day for one of a select number of reasons, such as work commitments, a disability or being on vacation.

Main sponsor Rep. Dave Bentz, a Christiana Democrat, shot down the characterization from Mr. Smith that the bill is unconstitutional.

“This is not absentee voting, this is early voting,” he said. “This is the same as showing up at your polling place on Election Day except you’re showing up early.”

Mr. Smith described early voting as a form of absentee voting, but his argument fell on deaf ears, and the bill passed.

Thirty-seven states offer early voting, while 18 allow same-day registration, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

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

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