DOVER — Delaware lawmakers began discussions Wednesday on a measure that could make voting in municipal elections easier for residents.
The First State has 57 incorporated municipalities. About 40 of them have their own voter registration requirements separate from the state’s Department of Elections rules. According to some lawmakers, this practice is confusing for many and blocks people from participating in their local elections.
Currently 12 municipalities already have an agreement with the Delaware Department of Elections to use its voter registration system. Those jurisdictions include Camden, Delaware City, Dover, Elsmere, Georgetown, Harrington, New Castle, Newark, Smyrna, Townsend, Wilmington and Wyoming.
Since January 2021, the General Assembly has adopted charter changes authorizing Laurel, Lewes, Milton and Seaford to use the state’s voter registration system, and Milford adopted an ordinance to do so.
The remaining towns require their residents to register on their separate rolls, resulting in confusion for many when they are turned away from their local polling place when trying to participate in local issues.
Senate Bill 233, introduced by Sen. S. Elizabeth “Tizzy” Lockman, D-Wilmington, if enacted, would end municipal voter registration requirements for all Delaware cities and towns when it comes to local elections.
On Wednesday, the state Senate’s Elections and Government Affairs Committee conducted a hearing on the bill. The group heard from residents who are registered to vote with the state of Delaware and were turned away from participating in local elections because they didn’t know they had to register separately with their town.
Lisa Carpenter, who moved to Milford in 2015 and updated her voter registration with the state when she moved to her new home, said she was affected by the practice of double voter registration.
“I went to go vote in an election and I wasn’t able to because I wasn’t registered locally. Now, some people think that it’s simple to be able to get to a town hall in order to register but for me it wasn’t. I had three teenagers, I was driving to Wilmington for work … there was no time to try and get to a town hall to register to vote,” Ms. Carpenter said to lawmakers on Wednesday.
SB233 was introduced earlier this month and discussion on the measure began this week. The Election and Government Affairs Committee voted late Wednesday to release the bill for debate in the Senate.
While the bill, if enacted, would change how voters connect with local polling, the measure would not change how or who can vote in municipal elections — that is still up to local leaders.
Some municipalities allow business owners or property owners that don’t live within their jurisdictions to participate in elections. That practice would not change and would remain in local control.
“I think fundamentally this bill is about access to the vote for all Delawareans,” Sen. Lockman said.
The current legislative effort is a bipartisan one.
Republican Bryan Shupe, a former mayor of Milford and current state representative from Milford, has been a vocal advocate of improving local elections for a few years.
“This really is something that can push us forward with voting rights here in the state of Delaware,” Rep. Shupe said.
“Even though individuals may be registered with the state of Delaware, they’ve proven either through an ID or a driver’s license or Social Security number that they can vote. They have to then go through a separate registration at their home city hall in order to vote for either their city council, or their mayor, or for a referendum that’s going on in their hometown.”
During Wednesday’s committee hearing, Rep. Shupe brought up the state elections department’s role in school board elections as an example of how this legislative effort could work.
Currently, a resident of a school district does not have to register to vote with their local school district to participate in a school board election. They only need to be 18 years old and prove that they are a resident. The state election’s department manages that process for Delaware’s 19 school districts.
On Wednesday, the only concern about the bill was raised by Lincoln Willis, of the League of Local Governments. He said his organization surveyed its members; 22 municipalities participated in the poll. Of those participants, two towns didn’t take a position. Five supported the measure while six had already partnered with the Department of Elections. Nine expressed opposition.
Mr. Willis said the League of Local Governments was concerned about when the law would take effect. Because many small towns have smaller staffs, the worry is the amount of time that would be needed to switch over to a new election system.
As written, the act would take effect immediately but would have to be implemented for municipal elections held on or after Jan. 1, 2024. Mr. Willis wanted lawmakers to move that date to July 1, 2024.
With the committee’s vote to release the bill, it will now go on to the full Senate for debate. If it passes that chamber, it would then have to go through the same process in the House of Representatives. Rep. Shupe is hopeful that the bill will make it into law.
“I’m really passionate about it. I’ve been working on it for about five years now, trying to eliminate this double registration process,” Rep. Shupe said.
Last year, he introduced HB 146 to tackle this issue, but the bill ultimately didn’t go anywhere.
“Since it did not seem that HB 146 was moving, I decided to contact some colleagues in the Senate for support. (Sen. Lockman), a Democrat from Wilmington, who was an original supporter of the bill is now taking the charge and created SB 233 ... It is the same bill but now being heard in the Senate to gain more attention,” Rep. Shupe said.
“This commitment from Sen. Lockman, a Democrat, and me a Republican show that there are issues like voting rights that go beyond partisan politics. Our hope is that by passing both House and Senate committees, this issue cannot be ignored any longer,” Rep. Shupe said.