House Bills Would Encourage More Delawareans to Register and Vote

DOVER – Lawmakers unveiled a trio of bills Wednesday aimed at increasing voter turnout and encouraging more people to participate in the electoral process.

The measures would consolidate state and presidential primaries, open early voting and establish automatic voter registration at the Division of Motor Vehicles. Taken together, the bills would have the effect of registering more Delawareans to vote while increasing opportunities to vote.

House Bill 90, sponsored by Rep. David Bentz, would have Delaware join the other 34 states that have early voting, allowing residents to cast ballots before Election Day. The measure would require the Department of Elections to offer early voting to Delawareans for 10 days before a general, primary or special election, including the weekend before Election Day. Maryland and New Jersey are among the states that offer early voting.

“We need to do everything in our power to make it easier for working Delawareans across the state to vote in our elections, because when everyone participates, we all stand to do better as a society,” said Rep. Bentz, D-Newark/Bear. “There are residents who for one reason or another have a difficult time making it to the polls on one particular day, whether it’s due to work, family obligations or illness. Providing more opportunities for Delawareans to vote will increase participation.”

A 2013 Brennan Center for Justice report found that early voting reduces stress on the voting system, creates shorter lines on Election Day, and increases access to voting as well as voter satisfaction. It also improves poll worker performance by allowing workers and volunteers to gain valuable experience before handling the high volumes of Election Day, and provides more opportunity to discover and correct voting machine errors, re-check electronic systems, and fine-tune poll site management.

House Bill 89, sponsored by Rep. Stephanie T. Bolden, would move Delaware’s state primary elections to coincide with its presidential primary elections.

Currently, Delaware holds its presidential primaries for both major parties on the fourth Tuesday in April. However, the First State’s primaries for statewide and local political offices are held on the second Tuesday after the first Monday in September. The separate dates can create confusion among voters, while turnout for the state primary dramatically drops off from the presidential primary.

In 2016, 30 percent of registered Democrats and 37.7 percent of registered Republicans voted in the presidential primary. But those numbers dropped to 20 percent of Democrats and 16 percent of Republicans in the state primary later last year. In 2012, Republican primary voter participation dropped from 16 percent in the presidential primary to 13 percent in the state primary.

“Democracy works best when everyone gets involved and participates,” said Rep. Bolden, D-Wilmington East. “We’ve seen from year to year that far more people vote in the presidential primaries than in the state primaries of the same year. In some cases, voters turning out to vote for president are confused when they can’t vote in a primary for governor, Congress or local legislative races.

“Consolidating the presidential and state primaries will save the state money, reduce voter confusion and increase turnout. We owe it to residents to do whatever we can to improve our electoral process, and I’m confident that this is a common-sense move in the right direction.”

House Bill 89, which is co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of 13 legislators, would move all state primaries to the fourth Tuesday in April. The change would take effect with the presidential election in 2020, but it also would move “off-year” elections (2022, 2026, etc.) to the same Tuesday.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 17 other states already hold their state primaries on the same day as their presidential primaries. Surrounding states Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania are among those states with both primaries on the same day.

A third bill, House Bill 79, sponsored by Rep. Bentz, would establish automatic voter registration at state DMV offices. Delaware’s Motor Voter Law, an “eSignature” model, is considered one of the better such policies in the country. The bill would require eligible voters to decline having their information automatically shared with the Department of Elections for registration. Six states and the District of Columbia have enacted similar policies.

The bills have been assigned to the House Administration Committee.