Senate approves bill allowing voting by mail this year

DOVER — The Senate passed legislation codifying voting by mail for the rest of the year due to COVID on Thursday. The measure now goes to Gov. John Carney, who will sign it.

The bill seeks to ensure protections established by the governor through the state of emergency will exist not just for the presidential primary but for the state primary and general elections. Delawareans currently are allowed to vote by mail in the July 7 presidential primary, a change instituted earlier this year as a precaution against coronavirus.

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.

The bill is not intended to replace voting in person, and the Department of Elections plans to keep open every polling place.

The Senate passed the legislation 18-3 Thursday after the House approved it in a party-line vote last week.

“This is a great day for democracy in Delaware,” Senate President Pro Tempore David McBride, a New Castle Democrat, said in a statement. “The COVID-19 pandemic has changed how we work, how we shop, how we interact with family and friends and even how the General Assembly conducts business, but thanks to HB346 this virus will not prevent a single Delaware voter from exercising their fundamental right to vote.

“Those who wish to vote in person are welcome to do so, but this legislation guarantees that no one will have to choose between risking their health and participating in a fair, open and secure election.”

Supporters are hopeful the measure will increase turnout and, more importantly, keep people safe. That’s especially relevant given the risk of a COVID resurgence.

According to the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington D.C., voting by mail does not offer a particular advantage to either major political party.

In normal times, five states hold elections primarily by mail, and all states allow mailed absentee ballots, although some are stricter about who is eligible. Nearly every state has expanded voting by mail because of COVID.

Like so many things in American society, voting by mail has become political. President Donald Trump has come out as ardently against it even though he has cast his ballot by mail, as have high-ranking officials in his administration.

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.

So far, Delaware has received about 72,000 absentee requests for the July presidential primary, Election Commissioner Anthony Albence told senators.

That total “is enormous compared to what we normally would have for a presidential primary. Scales higher,” he said.

Republicans expressed concerns Thursday the bill will lead to increased fraud, such as ballots being sent to the wrong people or individuals voting multiple times, or people struggling to find their polling places should some be shut down ahead of the elections.

“The reality is that we are inviting fraud. … It is going to happen. We are going to have vote harvesting in Delaware. Period. It’s going to happen,” Sen. Colin Bonini, a Dover Republican, said.

“And I’ll be honest with you, there are some colleagues across the way who will be the victim of that, quite frankly before some of us on our side will be victims of that. Be very, very careful what you wish for. There are organizations throughout this country that have made vote harvesting an art. They have targeted more moderate Democrats as their first targets. They eventually move on to Republicans.”

Minority Whip Cathy Cloutier, a Republican from the Talley’s Corner area, joined with the majority Democrats to defeat three amendments. The changes would have required the state keep at least one polling place open in each election district, turned voting by mail into an opt-in rather than an opt-out process and forbidden one person from dropping off more than three ballots.

“It’s already in the law, it’s already a requirement. We’re not asking for anything new,” Sen. Bryant Richardson, a Laurel Republican, said as he urged his colleagues to support his amendment.

Democrats rejected the change, which would have mandated a minimum of 41 polling places spread out throughout the state, because of concerns it could tie the election commissioner’s hands should COVID see a resurgence.

Senators debated the bill for about 90 minutes, with Mr. Albence fielding many questions, chiefly from Republicans.

After the discussion ran its course, the chamber voted to advance the bill to the governor, by a wider margin than the prior debate would have indicated.

Delaware’s state primary is Sept. 15. The general election is Nov. 3.

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