Delaware lawmakers debate voting by mail for school elections

 

DOVER — A bill mandating that all school elections in Delaware be conducted by mail has run into a roadblock in the Senate.

Members of the Senate Education Committee expressed reservations Wednesday about the legislation, which also requires that school board elections and referendums be held on the second Tuesday of May.

The legislation also limits participating in school elections to registered voters.

Karen Peterson

Sen. Karen Peterson

Chief sponsor Sen. Karen Peterson, D-Stanton, said the bill would eliminate the potential for improper electioneering and increase voter participation.

But committee members expressed various concerns about the bill, including a requirement that school elections be restricted to registered voters who have certified that they are U.S. citizens.

Committee chairman Sen. David Sokola, D-Newark, said the bill was a “broad, multifaceted” piece of legislation that would be difficult to support in its entirety.

Meanwhile, leaders of the Delaware Association of School Administrators and the Delaware School Boards Association objected to limiting school districts to only one referendum per calendar year.

“The ability to ask a second time after they hear feedback from the public is very important,” said John Marinucci, executive director of the school board association.

Peterson defended the measure, noting that several other states allow voting by mail, and that state taxpayers pick up the tab for local school elections in Delaware.

“Maybe if the school districts were paying the freight, they could have as many elections as they want,” she said.

“When you go to the voters, you should go with what you really need first …. Be honest up front and make your best argument up front,” she added. “You shouldn’t get two bites at the apple.”

Peterson also defended the requirement that only registered voters be allowed to vote in school board elections and referenda.

“Right now, any resident of the district can show up with a utility bill or something they got in the mail, and vote,” she said.

Peterson introduced the bill last year after she and other lawmakers received complaints about a successful Red Clay school district tax referendum.

The complaints included allegations of duplicate voting and concerns that the balloting coincided with “family fun nights” at schools serving as voting precincts that critics suggest were scheduled in order to draw students’ families to the polls. There were also complaints about buses blocking handicapped parking spaces, making voting difficult for some people, including senior citizens who might have opposed the referendum.

Peterson noted that, regardless of the bill’s fate, last year’s Red Clay referendum is still subject to a court challenge. The lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of a district resident and her elderly parents who opposed the tax increase but say they were unable to gain access to the polls.

Attorneys for the district have said Red Clay, like any other school district, is allowed to advocate for passage of a school referendum, and that it did nothing to inhibit or discourage voting by opponents.

A Chancery Court judge last year denied the district’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, which is scheduled for trial in October. The judge said his ruling gave Red Clay an opportunity to render the litigation moot by calling a new special election and limiting the scope of its “electoral interventions” in giving voters the chance to decide whether to ratify the result of the election.

Randall Chase writes for the Associated Press

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