For first time in 12 years state has new election chief

DOVER — After a 12-year tenure that saw the state shift part of its voter registration system from paper to electronic and recently purchase new voting machines, Elaine Manlove has stepped down as Delaware’s commissioner of election.

Now, for the second time, Anthony Albence has been chosen to succeed her.
Mr. Albence was nominated by Gov. John Carney on June 13 and confirmed for a four-year term by the Senate on June 19. He previously served as New Castle County’s director of elections — the same position Ms. Manlove held prior to being tapped to oversee statewide elections.

The job may not be a particularly flashy one — “Nobody grows up saying I want to be the state election commissioner,” Ms. Manlove noted — but it is important, especially when a large subset of the population is worried about cybersecurity while another is concerned about voter fraud.

Mr. Albence, 47, comes to the job after 12 years running elections for Delaware’s largest county. As election commissioner, he oversees about 40 employees. While the state holds elections infrequently (generally once every year for school board elections and then twice more in even years, with a separate presidential primary every four years), the duties don’t stop.

Preparing for the 2020 election, for instance, in some ways began Nov. 9, 2018 — the day after Return Day.
“I think what’s most important is that we ensure that the voting public feels that the voting system is secure, that their rights are preserved, certainly in light of this cybersecurity and those types of things, especially in today’s environment, I think that’s key,” Mr. Albence said Friday in the Department of Elections’ Dover office. “And I think they also want to be sure that we administer everything in a totally nonpartisan, equal way.”

Under Ms. Manlove, Delaware expanded its voter registration efforts, with the Department of Elections working closely with the Division of Motor Vehicles to expedite the paper-heavy process by going electronic. In September, lawmakers approved the purchase of new voting machines, spending $13 million to buy about 1,500 ExpressVote XL machines.

The machines, which were used in May’s school board elections as a test run for April’s presidential primary, replaced the Danaher ELECTronic 1242s, which had been in use since 1995 and were described by election officials as greatly outdated.
Ms. Manlove probably would have stepped down earlier if not for the new machines, she said last week. Instead, she chose to stay until the selection process, which began in late 2017, was complete.

“I didn’t think I would work this long, but we were always doing something, we were always in a project,” she said.
Being election commissioner was almost like a dream job, Ms. Manlove said, and one she probably would have held for longer than 12 years if not for one simple fact.
“The whole decision is, I’m old,” the 71-year-old joked about her decision to retire.

The First State’s new voting machines are in many respects very similar to the old models, although these contain a voter-verifiable paper trail. Upon signing in at a polling place, a voter is given a paper card he or she then inserts into a machine. The voter fills out his or her choices on the machine and then can view the card to ensure they are accurate.

The cards function as the official ballots of record in case of a dispute or a recount, adding a useful backup should an issue arise.
Some advocates had called for the state to shift to paper ballots, abandoning electronic voter for security reasons, a change the selection team was firmly against.
Going back to paper after decades using machines would have been like entering the “dark ages,” said Ms. Manlove, who sat on the team that picked the new machines.

The contract for the ExpressVote XLs includes an electronic pollbook, allowing Delawareans to sign in at their polling places electronically. In 2020, as a matter of fact, Delawareans will have the opportunity to scan their driver’s licenses to check in. The new e-pollbooks streamline the process and also allow state officials to get real-time updates on election day.

“These machines that we have give the voters the best of both worlds,” Mr. Albence said.
Asked about cybersecurity, both Mr. Albence and Ms. Manlove expressed confidence in the existing protections. The Department of Elections works closely with both state and federal law enforcement, including the FBI, and Washington conducts periodic tests to see how vulnerable the systems are to hackers.

One of the most common questions the agency gets from Delawareans is how safe the machines are, Mr. Albence said. While there were attempts to penetrate the system in 2016 (Russians are suspected as the culprits, though the exact identity of the hackers is not known for sure), they were unsuccessful, according to Mr. Albence.
“Even going back to 2016, the old analogy or the old adage that you use is like someone coming back and trying your doors,” he said. “That’s kind of what the federal authorities at (the Department of Homeland Security) told us in 2016. Someone came and tried your door, but the door was locked.”

Like Ms. Manlove, Mr. Albence is not too worried about deliberate voter fraud, which he claims is virtually nonexistent. Through its partnership with the state’s Office of Vital Statistics, the department automatically removes individuals from the rolls when they die.
This legislative session saw lawmakers approve early voting, starting in 2022. Other bills that would expand voting access, such as establishing mail voting, are at various stages of the process, and it’s uncertain how many, if any, will be enacted next year.

Over the years, Delaware has developed a national reputation as a leader in elections, such as through the department’s partnership with the DMV, and Mr. Albence doesn’t plan to let that change.

Delawareans next go to the polls April 28, when the state will hold its presidential primary. Mr. Albence and his staff will use the upcoming nine months carefully working behind the scenes to prepare for the election, doing all they can to ensure things run smoothly.

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

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