Commentary: Delaware primary voter registration deadline ‘absurdly early’

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Did you know that Friday, May 27, 2022, is the last day a voter can change their party affiliation to vote in the Sept. 13 primary?

That’s right. Delaware requires people to make that change over three months ahead of time, and I would venture to say that few people are thinking about fall’s primary election before summer even begins.

While most people probably don’t know about Delaware’s absurdly early party-change deadline, everybody knows that, in the United States, we choose the people who will represent us in government by the process of voting. And I am old enough to remember when voting was considered a civic duty, one that every American should take seriously and fulfill.

Yet voter turnout is often very low, particularly in primary elections — and bureaucratic obstacles like ultra-early deadlines work to keep voter turnout low.

We have heard a lot lately about anti-voter extremists creating new barriers to voting in other states across the country. But you might not know that voter registration itself is actually the most significant barrier to voting, and Delaware has some of the earliest deadlines in the nation. In addition to the ultra-early party-change deadline, new voters must register three weeks ahead of the primary and three weeks ahead of the general election.

Why?

Early deadlines serve no purpose other than preventing people from voting. Fortunately, the General Assembly is currently considering a bill (House Substitute 1 for House Bill 25) that would eliminate registration deadlines and allow people to register when they go to the polls to vote. It would also allow people to update their name and address or correct mistakes on the voter rolls. And in so doing, it would eliminate a major barrier to voting in a state where, every year, 12% of the population moves. With the passage of HS 1 for HB 25, those people would no longer be disenfranchised.

Low voter turnout is a chronic problem in the First State, and same-day registration would help remedy that problem. For example, consider voter turnout in nonpresidential election years, which tends to be low. In 2018, the country as a whole saw record-high turnout, averaging 53.4%. In Delaware, however, turnout lagged behind at 48.8%. In contrast, Maine, Montana and Wisconsin, all of which have allowed same-day registration for years, saw the highest turnout in the country with 64.5%, 63% and 62.6%, respectively. The same dynamic happened in 2014: Delaware had record low turnout at 36%, while voting in same-day-registration states soared.

Same-day registration would remove a barrier to voting that disproportionately affects voters in Black and Brown communities, low-income voters and young voters. People who work multiple jobs or have less autonomy at work, those dealing with health issues, the demands of parenting young children or any other number of things could benefit from same-day registration.

No Delawarean should be denied the freedom to vote because they missed an arbitrary and pointless early deadline to register.

Finally, we know from the experiences of other states that implementing same-day registration would not be burdensome or costly. In fact, other states have found that the process is easier to manage than accepting and verifying paper provisional ballots. Delaware has a lot of polling places, and so we do not get huge crowds like some other states do. Consequently, it would not be a problem to have a few new people registering to vote at their polling places.

Hopefully, the General Assembly will establish same-day registration this year, in time for our 2022 off-presidential election. But even if they do pass HS 1 for HB 25, the absurdly early deadline for people to change their political party will remain. Once we get same-day registration passed, let’s turn our attention to eliminating that last pointless deadline.

But until then, if you want to change your party registration to vote in the primary, remember to do so by May 27.

Claire Snyder-Hall is the director of Common Cause Delaware.

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