Guest Commentary: Many 2022 Delaware election races are just a cakewalk

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Dan Shortridge of Dover is a former journalist who covered Sussex County government and politics.

The September primary is increasingly becoming the real election in Delaware, to the detriment of a quarter of the electorate.

It should be disappointing to any civic-minded person this year that 34 candidates — 18 Democrats and 16 Republicans — will simply waltz into office because the other party failed to put up a candidate.

It appears that candidate recruitment is getting harder and harder for the two major parties, which has the downstream effect of removing choices from the 25% of voters who are not Democrats or Republicans.

The candidate hole is especially glaring in Senate District 16. Democrats there outnumber Republicans by 2,600 voters, but only Republicans had a choice in their next senator, Eric Buckson

However, the Libertarian and Nonpartisan parties deserve a degree of thanks; their candidates will ensure that voters in five races will at least have a nominal choice in November.

Here are four other observations about the primary elections:

Progressives flexing power

The liberal wing of the Democratic Party continued racking up primary wins, cementing 2020’s victories. Progressives may not yet be the party establishment or have the strength to unseat statewide incumbents, but they certainly can organize superbly and dominate local primary votes. The General Assembly will continue its leftward shift.

In years past, a well-known real estate agent, a police chief and a veterans’ advocate might have been easy locks for a Democratic nomination. In 2022, they all fell short against more liberal opponents.

Rightward slide in GOP

On the Republican side, Sen. Colin Bonini of Dover found that he wasn’t far enough to the right for his district, despite twice being the Republican nominee for statewide office and a long-prominent conservative voice. Facing two challengers, Bonini came in third, with only 815 votes. State Sen.-elect Eric Buckson will now sit in the chambers where his dad once presided as lieutenant governor; look for him to aim higher.

Sussex Republicans split

Sussex GOP rifts grew deeper, driven by personalities, rather than ideology or issues, and some leaders misjudged voter sentiment.

Keller Hopkins loaned $163,000 to his County Council primary challenge and ended up with just 38% of the vote ($106 a vote). County Councilman Mark Schaeffer tackily turned the council chambers into a political stage in support of Hopkins, and Councilwoman Cindy Green narrowly failed to install her daughter in her old job as register of wills.

Yet, whatever their differences in September, Sussex Republicans always seem to unite with overwhelming force in November. They control every elected General Assembly position except for that of House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf of Rehoboth Beach.

Transparency, schmansparency

One House primary highlighted a gap in the state’s campaign finance disclosure system, when one candidate completely failed to tell voters who funded their campaign, in violation of state law. The candidate blamed a technical glitch, but as of Friday, they were still facing $2,000 in fines for not filing either of the two required reports.

This, nevertheless, showcases a dangerous possibility in an era of “Make America Great Again” Republican election rejectionism. Short of public attention and criticism, there are few guardrails to stop a bloc of candidates from simply refusing to comply with the law that mandates they tell voters who’s funding them and what they’re spending money on. Public campaign finance reports are critical to ensuring that the public trusts elections and can monitor the actions of their candidates.

But the disclosure system relies on norms, and current fines aren’t enough of a stick. A legislative candidate without a primary opponent who didn’t file a finance report until the day after the general election would face at most $1,750 in fees; that could be covered by just three donors giving the maximum amount. Candidates with deep enough support could thus simply decide to take the financial hit and hide their donors until after voters had cast their ballots.

(The law bars candidates from getting a certificate of election until after they’ve come current with reports, but that’s still too late for voters — and doesn’t do anything to force compliance of losing candidates.)

The General Assembly needs to take action next year to clean this process up and give the Department of Elections more enforcement authority, including bigger fines and linking ballot access to disclosure compliance. We also need more frequent reporting requirements to keep tabs on last-minute donations.

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