How is voter outreach shifting amid a global pandemic?
Delaware is expecting a huge surge in mail in votes in the upcoming September primary and November general election.
Delaware Public Media's Roman Battaglia talked to the political parties to see how that’s changing their voter outreach game.
If past elections during the COVID-19 pandemic are any indication, Delaware faces a massive increase in the number of people voting by mail as the 2020 election cycle concludes.
The level of absentee voting in July’s presidential primary was 11 times more than what it was in 2016. And even small city elections in Dover and Rehoboth Beach saw record numbers of absentee voters this year.
Delaware’s General Assembly passed a vote-by-mail bill that allows all Delawareans, regardless of their reason, to request a vote by mail ballot for both the September primary and November general election.
State Elections Commissioner Anthony Albence says voting absentee or voting by mail are practically the same thing, the only difference being the reason someone needs to request a ballot.
“Absentee voting, which again, has existed for many years and as I mentioned, still exists in our law. There were specific reasons for which one could request a ballot. Essentially reasons why someone couldn not appear at their normal polling place on election day," Albence says. "Usually those reasons include someone who is sick or disabled, someone could be on vacation. Again, vote by mail, no specific reason required, you just wish to vote by that method versus appearing at your usual polling place and you are permitted to do that now under the newly enacted legislation.”
In Delaware, it often falls on the political parties to perform voter outreach or, as 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton put it:
“I’m trying to figure out how to get them to have Pokemon go to the polls.”
But this year, parties are focusing less on getting people to a physical voting place and focusing more on voting by mail.
Delaware Democratic party chair Erik Raser-Schraam says educating people about mail in voting is important, since this is the first election many Delawareans will use this method.
“It’s two fold now, we kinda have a little bit more work on our hands. It’s not only why vote for Democrats, why Democrats matter, what our platform it, what we will deliver, but then the second piece to that is how do we educate the voters and making sure they know how to vote. And we’ll still do that in-person voting for those folks who wanna vote in person," Raser-Schraam says. "We did that in the presidential primary here and it worked well. We had a lot of folks to took advantage of doing the absentee vote, vote by mail, but you still have folks that wear their mask, they have their hand sanitizer and they want to go to the voting booth and cast their ballot.”
While the Democratic party is shifting efforts to educate voters about voting by mail, the Republican party has filed a lawsuit about it.
Jane Brady, Chair of the Delaware GOP, says her party only wants to stop people from fraudulently voting by mail.
“We are not saying that anyone that has a concern about their health is required to vote in person, that is not what this is about. We have a provision in our constitution and in the code that says if you have a health concern, you have a sickness or a disability that make you have health concerns about coming and voting in person, vote absentee," Brady states. "Ask for the ballot, don’t go to the polls and vote absentee. We’re encouraging people to do that.”
Albence has previously said voting by mail and voting absentee employ the same security measures to ensure the right person is filling out the ballot.
He’s also stressed many times the security of ballots are the department of elections top priority. There are systems in place to prevent someone from having more than one active ballot at a time, and identities are verified through signatures when ballots are returned.
One group that’s expected to vote more by mail this year is seniors. According to U.S. Census data, voter turnout among those aged 65 and older was 70.9 percent. Turnout then decreases with every age group to the lowest, 18 to 29 year olds where voter turnout was 46.1 percent.
While seniors vote more often than younger voters, they’re also at higher risk for Coronavirus, so voting in person is more dangerous.
Kim Wharton with the AARP says it’s important to educate people about their options when it comes to voting this year.
“We wanna give people the resources they need to make a great decision. Because there were some changes with voting and I think the best thing we can do is drive people to our website or ivote.de.gov. They’ve done a great job with updating that website with the best, most recent information.”
Wharton says the AARP doesn’t want to tell voters what the safer option is, rather to educate them on what options they have. She says following the CDC guidelines is what people should do to remain safe, especially when heading out to the polls.
It’s all part of their new Protect Voters 50+ campaign, which focuses on educating voters on changes to the election process amid the pandemic. They’re also working on highlighting issues important to seniors, such as Medicare, Social Security and prescription drug prices.
But not every senior is choosing to vote by mail, like 91-year-old voter Jane Downs, who says she’s firm about voting in person.
“Yeah ever since I was 18 I voted. I can remember my grandmother voting, I remember when they did it and I’ve did it ever since.”
Both political parties are shifting their strategies this year. While they may have differing opinions on the viability of voting by mail, both are adapting to how the Coronavirus has affected the race in Delaware.
Roman Battaglia is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.