House Bills Would Increase Voter Turnout and Participation in Elections

DOVER – Lawmakers filed a trio of bills Wednesday designed to encourage and increase voter participation in Delaware’s electoral process.

Taken together, the three measures would make it easier for eligible residents to register to vote, increase opportunities to cast ballots and eliminate confusion surrounding multiple elections.

“Voting is a fundamental part of our society. We should be doing 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,” said Rep. David Bentz. “These proposals will help increase voter turnout in our elections, which should always be a common goal.”

The bills unveiled Wednesday all passed the House of Representatives during the 149th General Assembly and are supported by Governor John Carney.

“Part of my job is to encourage more Delawareans to participate in our democratic process. To have their voices heard. And, most importantly, to vote in elections,” said Governor John Carney. “We ought to make it as easy as possible, not harder, for eligible Delawareans to exercise their right to vote. I encourage members of both parties to support these common-sense reforms to our election laws that will get more Delawareans involved in discussions about their own future.”

House Bill 38, sponsored by Rep. Bentz, D-Christiana, would have Delaware join the other 35 states that have in-person 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.

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 and helps workers and volunteers prepare for 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 41, sponsored by Rep. Stephanie T. Bolden, would move Delaware’s state primary elections to coincide with its presidential primary elections in April.

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. 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.

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 that year. In 2012, GOP primary voter participation dropped from 16 percent in the presidential primary to 13 percent in the state primary.

“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,” said Rep. Bolden, D-Wilmington East. “While it might be seen as an inconvenience to some by having an earlier primary, 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.”

Delaware’s late state primary forces election officials to obtain waivers for federal requirements for overseas and military absentee ballots. Consolidating the primaries would eliminate that issue, as well as save the state money, reduce voter confusion and increase turnout, Rep. Bolden noted.

A third bill, House Bill 39, sponsored by Rep. John Viola, would make Delaware the 18th state to allow same-day voter registration, which permits eligible residents to register to vote and cast their ballots on the same day.

“Right now, we have an arbitrary deadline to register to vote of three weeks before an election. Some people, often young people or those who just moved to the state, don’t think to register to vote until it’s right before the election, and by then it’s too late,” said Rep. Viola, D-Bear. “Election Day registration has been around for decades and is proven to safely and effectively increase voter turnout, so it’s time for Delaware to take this step forward.”

Under HB 39, a person would be able to register to vote at his or her polling place on the day of a presidential or state primary or general or special election by showing a valid government-issued photo identification card, current utility bill, bank statement, paycheck or other government document displaying the name and address of the person registering to vote. Those are the same criteria required for a person registering to vote under current Delaware law.

Current state law sets the last day to register before an election at the “fourth Saturday prior to the date of the election,” close to a month before Election Day.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, same-day registration has existed in Maine, Minnesota and Wisconsin since the mid-1970s. Since then, more than a dozen other states and the District of Columbia have adopted same-day registration, and several other states are contemplating similar laws.

A study of the 2016 elections found that the six highest-ranking states for voter turnout offered same day voter registration (SDR), which allows voters to register or fix a registration problem when they vote. Voter turnout in states with SDR was seven percentage points higher than states without the option.

The bills have been assigned to the House Administration Committee.