Why Intregity Should Trump Turnout

Posted on 06-14-2021

By William Whipple, III and the Conservative Caucus of Delaware

The goal of relaxing requirements for voting has been gaining ground in recent years and was, as we all know, greatly advanced last year. In the throes of the COVID pandemic, numerous states liberalized the rules for mail-in ballots (once known as absentee ballots) – resulting in some 40 percent of the votes nationwide being cast by mail. Early voting was also up, and fewer than 40 percent of the votes were cast in person on Election Day.

The pandemic notwithstanding, voting turnout was higher than it had been in decades. Efforts are now underway to liberalize the voting laws for future elections – including in Delaware. See the on-line form that Governor Carney’s office is using to solicit support for four “common sense” voting reforms.

Let’s review the changes being proposed, including some potential drawbacks that should be considered.

1. Allow same day voting registration – If someone hasn’t gotten around to registering to vote by the prescribed deadline, they would still be allowed to show up at a polling place, get registered, and then vote on the spot. Life gets busy, we all make mistakes, give him (or her) a break.

It’s not that hard to get registered ahead of time, however, for anyone who is seriously interested in voting. And election workers at polling places (typically pretty hectic on Election Day) might find it challenging to reliably verify the eligibility of would-be voters on the spot. Some people who
aren’t entitled to vote would probably wind up doing so, and in any case the processing of eligible voters would be needlessly slowed down.

2. Allow early voting at polling places up to 10 days before Election Day – Maybe some would-be voters will be tied up on Election Day or would like to vote when the line is shorter. Why not accommodate them instead of providing an excuse for their not voting?

On the other hand, in person early voting would increase the aggregate cost and staffing requirements for in-person voting. It may be more practical to ensure that polling places are adequate on Election Day, as has typically been the case in Delaware. (Lines were excessively long in 2020, reflecting COVID-related precautions). Given the possibility of late breaking information, moreover, it’s best to vote after the campaigns are completed.

3. Move primary elections to coincide with presidential primary dates – The idea here is that it would save money and effort to consolidate the state primary (traditionally in early September) with the presidential primary (in April). Some would go one step further, scheduling school board elections on primary day. On its face, these changes would seem like a “no brainer” – who doesn’t favor administrative efficiency and public convenience?

It’s been suggested, however, that the real motivation for this proposal is to shield incumbent office holders from primary challenges (which are more likely to materialize if state primaries occur in September). Additionally, the length of the state campaign season in our little state would be pointlessly prolonged. Dover incumbents need to be challenged on attempt to move primary, Greg Lavelle, delawareonline.com, January 29, 2021.

Even if the two primary days aren’t consolidated, it would still seem desirable to consolidate school board elections with the state primaries rather than conducting them on a separate date (which typically results in very low turnout).

4. Allow for no-excuse absentee voting – Absentee voting has been traditionally allowed for citizens unable to vote in person on Election Day due to absence from the state (e.g., for military service,
business commitments, vacation plans), illness or incapacity, et cetera. These exceptions are expressly spelled out in the Delaware Constitution.

In 2020, during the COVID pandemic, legislation was enacted to permit mail-in voting for Delawareans who didn’t want to vote in person; applications for mail-in ballots were then sent out to everyone on the voting rolls.

The Delaware Republican Party filed a challenge in Chancery Court on grounds that the law violated the express provisions of the State Constitution. Noting that there was a statutory expiration date (January 12, 2021), the Court upheld the statute on grounds of expediency during a deadly illness. Chancery Court, Memorandum Opinion, September 28, 2020.

Not only did many Delawareans vote by mail who might not have felt comfortable turning out at the polls during the pandemic, but many of them voted long before the campaigns were over – thereby relying on incomplete and possibly misleading information.

No matter, Governor Carney has expressed satisfaction with the results and called for legislation to provide similar latitude for Delaware voters going forward. State of the State address, January 24, 2021.

“One of the most important things we did during this pandemic was safeguard our democracy. With the General Assembly’s help, we allowed mail-in voting for the first time. That meant hundreds of thousands of Delawareans could stay safe from the pandemic, while exercising their right to vote. And I look forward to signing legislation to make mail-in voting a permanent feature of our elections . . .”

The first step would be to amend the DE Constitution, replacing the current rules for absentee ballots with a generalized delegation of power to the General Assembly. A bill for this purpose was passed by the General Assembly in 2020 by the required 2/3 majority. The bill (HB 75) was reintroduced in this session and the change will become effective when it is passed again and signed by the governor. Further legislation will follow to specify “the circumstances, rules, and procedures by which registered voters may vote by absentee ballot.”

Mail-in voting will no doubt increase voter turnout, but at a price. First, the incidence of electoral irregularities (use of invalid ballots, delayed determination of voting results, et cetera) will increase. Second, this new approach will dilute the sense of duty to conscientiously weigh all information about the candidates coming out during a campaign before making one’s decision.

All things considered, it’s hard for me to see how the net results will “safeguard our democracy.” I think the goal should be to enhance the traditional image of in-person voting on Election Day as the model for participation in our electoral process, and that the growing use of mail-in and early voting are having precisely the opposite result. ■


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