Democrats push bills to expand Delaware voting rights

DOVER — Democrats on Wednesday filed three bills that would establish early voting and same-day voter registration and move the primary election from September to April.

But, Republican opponents argue the changes could lead to a potential for voter fraud.

While similar versions of the measures passed the House in the prior General Assembly but were not voted on by the Senate, they could see more success this year with Gov. John Carney, a Democrat, firmly onboard.

Both chambers of the legislature are controlled by the Democrats.

House Bill 38 would require the election commissioner to set locations where Delawareans can vote in person prior to an election. The measure would mandate a window of at least 10 days, including the weekend immediately before an election.

House Bill 39 would essentially eliminate the deadline to register to vote, which is currently the fourth Saturday before an election. Under the legislation, Delawareans could apply to register at a polling place on election day and then cast their ballots. Documents such as photo identification or a copy of a recent utility bill, bank statement, check or another government form or paper would be required.

The bill would not affect individuals wishing to change registration, which must be done more than three months before the primary election.

If House Bill 41 passes, Delaware’s primary election would coincide with the presidential primary even in off-year elections. Currently, the state’s presidential primary is the fourth Tuesday in April, while the primary election for all other offices is the second Tuesday after the first Monday in September.

Supporters of the measures say they would increase turnout by making it easier for people to cast ballots.

“We’ve seen from year to year that far more people vote in the presidential primaries than in the state primaries of the same year,” Rep. Stephanie T. Bolden, D-Wilmington, said in a statement. “In some cases, voters turning out to vote for president are confused when they can’t vote in a primary for governor, Congress or local legislative races.

“While it might be seen as an inconvenience to some by having an earlier primary, we owe it to residents to do whatever we can to improve our electoral process, and I’m confident that this is a common-sense move in the right direction.”

In 2016, about 94,000 Delawareans voted in the September primary, while approximately 164,000 cast ballots for presidential candidates in April of that year.

An attempt to move the primary to April passed the House overwhelmingly in 2016 but was defeated in the Senate. It again received bipartisan support in 2017 and was approved by the House with ease but was not debated on the Senate floor.

Votes on the other two initiatives largely fell along party lines last year, with early voting not receiving a vote before the full Senate because of constitutional questions supporters are confident have been answered. A 2013 effort to establish same-day registration passed the House solely on Democratic support but never received a vote in the Senate.

Senate President Pro Tempore David McBride, D-New Castle, declined to comment on the bills and the likelihood of them getting votes on the Senate floor because they were just introduced.

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.

Because the early voting legislation would change Wilmington’s charter, it necessitates a two-thirds majority, meaning even if every Democrat backs the measure, support from two House Republicans and two Senate Republicans would be needed.

“Voting is a fundamental part of our society. We should be doing everything in our power to make it easier for working Delawareans across the state to vote in our elections, because when everyone participates, we all stand to do better,” Rep. David Bentz, D-Christiana, said in a statement. “These proposals will help increase voter turnout in our elections, which should always be a common goal.”

While Republicans cite concerns about voter fraud, Election Commissioner Elaine Manlove has repeatedly claimed such misconduct is virtually nonexistent in Delaware.

In May, she said the Department of Elections would have to work out a few kinks involving same-day registration, such as how to ensure only individuals eligible to vote do so.

The most likely option, she said at the time, would be for poll workers to require anyone seeking to register on 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 believes the state is very successful in registering people to vote. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of July 2017, there were approximately 757,000 Delawareans at least 18 years of age, while state data indicates there were about 680,000 registered voters. Not all of those 757,000 people were eligible to vote, meaning more than 90 percent of potential voters were (and presumably still are) registered.

Locally, 2018 saw the highest participation rate for a midterm since 1994, with 52 percent of all registered voters casting ballots. Turnout is higher for presidential elections.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only four states had later 2018 primaries than Delaware’s Sept. 6 election. The NCSL reports 38 states have early voting, while 15 let residents register and vote on election day.

Gov. Carney has committed to supporting the bills and is expected to urge lawmakers to back them today in his State of the State.

“Throughout our country’s history, Americans have sacrificed to secure voting rights for women and African Americans,” he wrote in a letter to the editor last week. “We have an obligation to build on that legacy by taking additional steps that will strengthen voter access for Delawareans and increase participation in our elections.

“This should not be a partisan issue. Democrats and Republicans have an interest in getting more Delawareans to the polls.

“Most importantly, we all have an interest in removing barriers to vote, and making sure all Delawareans are involved in our Democratic process. We live in a small state where it’s common to run into your representatives at Wawa, in the grocery store, or your local Little League game. We should also make it easier to have your voice heard at the ballot box.”

In that same letter, he also stumped for no-excuse absentee voting and expanded voter registration at the Division of Motor Vehicles.

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

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