New Delaware Voting Rights Coalition backs expansion of absentee balloting

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The new Delaware Voting Rights Coalition held its first press conference Wednesday to throw weight behind a bill that would minimize the state constitution’s current limitations on absentee voting.

“(This is) Delaware’s first statewide coalition on voting rights,” said Dwayne Bensing, the legal staffer from the Delaware branch of the American Civil Liberties Union hosting the Zoom event. “We’re encouraging voters and policymakers to consider reforms that would improve access to voting.”

He said that, “Specifically, we support reforms that extend the voter-registration deadline through Election Day, that ensure all registered voters are able to cast and mail ballots and reforms that educate all eligible voters about their options to cast a mail or early-vote ballot.”

The group’s first public order of business is to support House Bill 75, an amendment to the state constitution, which currently only allows absentee voting under narrow circumstances. The bill’s primary sponsor — Rep. David Bentz, D-Christiana — was on hand Wednesday to explain the legislation.

“The way our state constitution is written right now … outlines the exact circumstances under which someone can vote absentee,” he said. “This prevents us from going into the state code to amend absentee-voting law to make it more accessible.”

Claire Snyder-Hall, the program director for Common Cause Delaware, a nonprofit focused on voting access, explained the present situation.

“Voters are not allowed to vote by absentee ballots unless they can provide the Department of Elections an excuse,” she said. “And not just any excuse but one of the few excuses listed in the state constitution.”

The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, was not covered under the listed excuses, Ms. Snyder-Hall said.

“Fortunately, the General Assembly made an emergency exception to allow people to vote absentee,” she said. “Common Cause Delaware, along with the rest of the voting coalition, wants to make that option permanent.”

Rep. Bentz said changing the state constitution is the first step in implementing access to “no excuse” absentee voting.

“Many Delawareans would like to vote this way if given the opportunity to do so every cycle,” he said. “It was a very popular thing, and I think it’s something that would continue to be popular outside the context of COVID-19.”

Absentee voting is popular, members of the coalition said, because voting in person on Election Day can be a challenge for many working people.

“Today, voting in person on Election Day just doesn’t work for most Americans,” Ms. Snyder-Hall said.

Tom Irvine, a representative from the Southern Delaware Alliance for Racial Justice, went into great detail about how that often plays out in modern-day Sussex County.

“Most people in Sussex County live in small towns, and historically, they worked near where they lived in agriculture or commerce,” Mr. Irvine said. “Now, people are commuting,” he said. “Just like in the big city.”

Mr. Irvine added that those caring for children and elderly or disabled relatives have even more constraints on their time.

“It’s very hard to go vote in a 12-hour window if you’re working one or two jobs, if you’re commuting, if you have a difficulty in terms of a narrow ground for early voting,” he said. “That’s particularly true for people of color.

“The 12-hour window on a Tuesday in November just doesn’t cut it anymore,” he added.

Charito Calvachi-Mateyko — a longtime Delaware resident, native of Ecuador and activist focused on voting rights and restorative justice in the Latino community — said she was surprised how challenging it was to vote when she first came to the U.S.

In Ecuador, people are automatically registered to vote on their 18th birthdays, she said.

“They know you turned 18, and you are included,” Ms. Calvachi-Mateyko said. “You don’t have to do anything.”

The fact that voting in the U.S. often requires voters to jump through many hoops to participate in democracy is perplexing to her.

“This is supposed to be the country of democracy,” she said. “The leader, the model.”

But in Delaware and nationwide, many are skeptical of universal approaches to voting, like the one practiced in Ecuador, on the grounds of election security. During the press conference, coalition members were asked to address whether there is an increased risk of fraud with no-excuse absentee voting.

“People talk about election security all the time,” Mr. Irvine said, so it’s not an unreasonable question. Still, he pointed to a conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, which has been researching voter fraud for years and has found no evidence that it’s a widespread issue.

“Every time there’s voter fraud and it’s prosecuted anywhere in the country, they list it, and it’s basically so minuscule that it doesn’t even come up statistically as anything,” Mr. Irvine said.

Furthermore, he said committing large-scale voter fraud through the mail-in system would be massively difficult.

“People have to get an absentee ballot, and it’s mailed to them at their registered address,” Mr. Irvine said. “No one can collect thousands of early ballots without robbing thousands of mailboxes and then having none of those thousands of people report that their ballot is missing. That’s implausible.”

He added that sending in a fraudulent ballot would require a criminal to closely copy a voter’s signature, given that the marks are the main way mailed ballots are verified.

Ultimately, the coalition’s goal is to boost voter turnout in Delaware, and Ms. Snyder-Hall said she sees increased access to absentee voting as a quick, easy way to do that.

“All over the country, other states did what Delaware did. People were allowed the freedom to vote absentee during the pandemic, and the results were phenomenal in terms of voter participation,” she said. “Turnout records were broken just about everywhere. When ballots were counted, only 30% of voters had cast an in-person ballot on Election Day.”

In Delaware, Ms. Snyder-Hall said “no-excuse absentee voting contributed to turnout that was over 15% higher than for the 2016 presidential election.” That’s roughly 64,000 more voters.

Mr. Bensing stressed that the coalition’s work will not end with HB 75, which has been voted out of the House Administration Committee and is awaiting further action.

“Once HB 75 is passed, it will be really important that vote-by-mail legislation has reforms within it that expand access,” he said.

He added that the coalition will support prepaid return postage for election-related documents, secure ballot drop boxes in each of the state’s congressional districts and other measures to make voting more accessible.