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Politics & Government

Vote by mail coming for fall elections; advocate reports confusion over presidential primary options

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All registered voters will have the option of voting by mail this fall — without specifying why.

Gov. John Carney signed the vote by mail legislation Wednesday. It allows all voters to return their ballots by mail without a traditional absentee excuse through the end of this year. 

Under the legislation, the State Election Commissioner must mail an application to receive a mail-in ballot to every qualified, registered voter sixty days before the election. Each voter must then complete and return the application. They will then receive a ballot, envelope and instructions, to be returned by mail. No ballots can be tabulated until Election Day. Voters will still have the option to vote in person.

Carney said at a virtual bill signing he sees the mail-in option as “critically important” for the elections this fall. 

State Rep. Valerie Longhurst sponsored the legislation in an effort to help Delawareans vote safely despite COVID-19.

“This just makes it easier because we don’t know what’s going to happen in November with this pandemic, and we’re just thinking ahead and being proactive instead of being reactive,” she said in an interview Tuesday. 

Among the legislation’s supporters was the League of Women Voters of Delaware.

“We’re suggesting to people that they use the vote by mail option,” said Jill Itzkowitz, who leads the League’s elections and voting committee. “It’s safer for them health-wise and they can reduce the lines at the polls.”

But Itzkowitz says many people are confused about the various options for voting this year. 

The Governor’s coronavirus emergency order allowed all voters socially distancing because of the coronavirus—theoretically, all registered Democrats and Republicans—to request an absentee ballot for Tuesday’s presidential primary under the sick or disabled excuse. These voters could return their ballots by mail, email, and for a time, an internet-based platform the state was piloting. The emergency order applies to a presidential primary, state primary or special election for statewide or local offices, but does not expressly apply to the general election.

“Some people are confused because once you read the ballot, it really scares people because the ballot itself doesn’t say anything about COVID-19,” said Itzkowitz. “It says sick or disabled, and you have to sign your names and swear that it’s true. Some people are wary of this.”

The coronavirus has reduced the opportunities that League of Women Voters has to educate voters about their options. Still, Itzkowitz says the group has joined Zoom webinars hosted by other groups and tabled at some Black Lives Matter protests.

Carney said Wednesday he expects to rescind the part of his executive order expanding access to absentee voting before the fall elections. 

Elections security experts have raised concerns about email voting— although Delaware’s Election Commissioner Anthony Albence says he is confident in the security of the state’s system, which gives voters the option of using an encryption tool known as the Egress Switch. 

 

Albence emphasizes that with the new no-excuse vote by mail option for the fall, in-person and traditional absentee voting will still be available. For example, overseas voters and voters with disabilities will still be able to access email ballot return. If Carney rescinds the part of his emergeny order addressing absentee voting, those voting absentee merely over concern about the coronavirus likely will not.

The state is already seeing record absentee voting for the presidential primary Tuesday. As of Thursday, roughly 77,200 voters had requested absentee ballots— more than 15 times the number that voted absentee during the 2016 presidential primary, according to the Department of Elections. 

As of Thursday more than 46,800 had returned their absentee ballots, mainly by postal mail. Just under 1,000 had returned their ballots by email, and only about forty percent of those used the Egress encryption option. More than 2,700 voters returned their ballots for the presidential primary through the internet-based Democracy Now OmniBallot voting platform before the state dropped the pilot earlier this month.

Rep. Longhurst says the additional cost of the vote by mail option will be covered by federal coronavirus relief funds. She adds she would support efforts to make no-excuse absentee voting permanent in Delaware.

“I don’t think that we should have Delawareans have to give a reason why they want an absentee ballot,” she said. 

 
 

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