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How can Delaware build trust in its fledgling vote-by-mail system?

Delaware Public Media

Some of the initial assessment of mail-in voting system is already happening in the wake of the state's September primary.

Most who chose to vote in person in during that primary said they didn’t trust the new system.

And Delaware Public Media’s Roman Battaglia looked into how groups are looking to build more confidence in it.


If primary trends hold, Delaware can expect nearly 16 times the amount of mail-in ballots this year than in any previous year.


Overall turnout increased by double digits for both the Democratic and Republican parties in the 2020 primary compared to 2016. This can be attributed in part to a more contentious primary, but the access of vote-by-mail ballots was also likely a major factor.


Still many Delawareans assumed the health risk posed by the coronavirus pandemic and cast a ballot in person because they distrust vote-by-mail


Richard Deleon, a Democrat in Milford, was one of many who wasn’t sure his vote would be counted by mail.


“Oh, you know, with everything that’s going on with the USPS I felt that maybe my vote would be late or something," said Deleon. "You never know what might happen so I just felt safer doing it in person.”


He’s talking about the recent controversies over service cuts and sorting machine removals at the USPS, which could cause delays in delivering ballots to and from voters. His sentiment was one shared by Democratic and Republican voters alike.


But the state parties disagree on the system.


State GOP Party chair Jane Brady says it opens the door for fraud.


“Why would you introduce a new system this close to an election where people are not familiar with it and they’re sending things in unsigned and incomplete or not getting them there on time and they’re disenfranchised as a result," said Brady. "Why are you inviting fraud, potential fraud into our election?”


There have been no identifiable cases of voter fraud stemming from vote-by-mail in September’s primary. In fact, a Heritage Foundation database documenting voter fraud, found no voter fraud cases in the First State since they started the database in the 1980s.  There have only been 1,298 documented cases nationwide in the past 4 decades, and most aren’t about mail in voting.


Not everyone in the GOP party is against vote-by-mail. State Rep. Mike Smith (R-Pike Creek Valley), a Republican in a New Castle County district with more registered Democrats than Republicans, abstained from the vote-by-mail legislation, but says that doesn’t mean he’s against it.


“I went not voting for several reasons," said Smith. "One, we didn’t need it for this election because we’re in a state of emergency. And under a state of emergency you’re allowed to no-reason absentee vote. So, you’re already able to do the mail-in ballot process. Now, long term, I think mail-in ballots would be a great thing because you work out all the kinks ahead of time.”


This divide over vote-by-mail didn’t always exist. Utah, a heavily Republican state, created an optional vote-by-mail system back in 2012. In other states where vote-by-mail is now the only option, both Republican and Democratic leadership support it.


Democratic Party of Delaware executive director Jesse Chadderdon thinks vote-by-mail would not be as controversial if it weren’t for the Trump Administration.


“Although I would say that Republicans in states like Utah, Oregon and Washington have gotten in line with it before Donald Trump was the sinister force that was sort of guiding their party," said Chadderdon. "And I think unfortunately the Republican party here in Delaware is just following his cue cards when it comes to this sort of manufactured outrage.”


Elaine Manlove is the former state election commissioner, she retired back in 2019.


She’s been speaking up about the election, specifically the allegations of fraud and the threats of poll-watchers by the Trump administration. 


She says the state elections departments regularly keep in contact about best practices, and how elections have turned out.

“When I talk to the vote by mail states, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, they don't have all the polling place issues that we have, they don't have to worry about offline. So there are benefits to that,” Manlove said. “And I've worked with other groups where we check against, we check with other states to see if there's any duplication of voting between, say, Delaware and Maryland or Delaware and Oregon. We've never found that. So I think that discussion of any kind of fraud is just just plain crazy. There isn't any I think they've been looking for it for years, and there isn't any.”


The total increase in turnout in the 2020 primary was very similar between Democrats and Republicans. Dem’s saw a 90 percent increase to Republican’s 85 percent.


But looking at just the increase in voting by mail, Democrats voted by mail in far greater numbers than Republicans. In fact, turnout in person decreased for Democrats by 4 percent, but increased by mail over 1890 percent. For Republicans, in person turnout increased 50 percent, and saw a jump of 717 percent in absentee voting.


The two sides do agree on ways to improve the vote-by-mail system in this election - and maybe future ones.


According to data from the Department of Elections, 1024 ballots were rejected during the September primary because they either arrived late or they weren't signed, and the elections department couldn’t follow up with the voter in time.


Republican candidate for Governor Julianne Murray isn’t surprised ballots arrived late.


“The biggest problems are number one, people not getting it in by the deadline and number two that they fill it out wrong," said Murray. "And the not getting it in by the deadline, the postal service is doing what they can with it but because fo the timing that they have ascribed to this, how late you can request a ballot. Why somebody would wait until the week before the election to even make the request is beyond me, but they do, and they did.”


Educating voters was the major priority for increasing trust in vote-by-mail. Murray herself didn't know when applying for a vote-by-mail ballot online, voters must either print out the application to sign it, or enter their drivers license information to pull their signature from the DMV.


As Chadderdon notes, once people warm up to voting-by-mail and see it as safe, secure, and convenient, he’s sure the vast majority of Delawareans will support it.


Chadderdon is confident if vote-by-mail is successful this year, the state legislature will move to make it permanent.


“So I am hopeful that after we thoughtfully study what happened in 2020 with this sort of trial program - that we can put together long term legislation that encapsulates best practices not only here in Delaware," said Chadderdon. "But as you mentioned other states where this has been happening for 10 and 20 years and make sure that Delawareans have this opportunity long term.”


Even Republicans who have been against vote-by-mail, like Murray, expect it to become a staple in Delaware's elections from now on. 


She says they might as well accept that fact, and help voters learn how to fill out and send their mail-in ballots.


Roman Battaglia is a corps member withReport for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

Roman Battaglia grew up in Portland, Ore, and now reports for Delaware Public Media as a Report For America corps member. He focuses on politics, elections and legislation activity at the local, county and state levels.
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