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Vote-by-mail bill passes, heads to Gov. Carney

Sophia Schmidt
Delaware Public Media

Delawareans will likely be able to vote by mail this year, pending a signature from Gov. John Carney.

House lawmakers passed a bill on Wednesday making voting by mail a permanent feature of state elections starting on July 1st, despite fervent opposition from both House and Senate Republicans.

The bill’s July 1st effective date spurred an amendment from State Rep. Bryan Shupe (R-Milford) to push it back to January 2023. Shupe argues the majority party should not be able to open a new avenue for voting immediately before an election.

House Republicans also argued Wednesday the bill makes no meaningful distinction between voting by mail and filing an absentee ballot.

"The design of this entire bill is a reproduction of the chapters and sections that are the process the Department of Elections uses for absentee voting," said House Minority attorney Ron Smith. "All that’s happened is that the word absentee has been struck.”

Delaware’s constitution sets a list of groups eligible to use absentee ballots, changing that requires a constitutional amendment. But Democrats say vote-by-mail bill deals with voting methods, not a category of voters. A proposal to amend Delaware's constitution to permit no-excuse absentee voting failed in the legislature last year.

Mark Cutrona, the Deputy Director of the legislature's Division of Research, acknowledges a constitutional amendment would be a more airtight method for broadening vote-by-mail access, but he stands by the bill’s constitutionality.

“I think it goes without saying that the safer mechanism is to pass a constitutional amendment, because that would remove all doubt from a court case," he said, "but that does not mean that’s the correct course of action – that does not mean this body can’t pass vote-by-mail.”

Speaker of the House Peter Schwartzkopf (D-Rehoboth Beach) concedes the constitutionality of the bill will be decided in court, not in the legislature.

State Rep. Mike Ramone (R-Pike Creek Valley) also suggested vote by mail violates the legislature’s obligation to minimize the risk of voter fraud – and could erode public trust. “Can I say what happens when we don’t do that part? January sixth," he said. "I’m not saying it’s right or wrong - I’m just saying it happens. No matter who wins, whether it's a county council person or the President of the United States, the people who voted need to believe it was fair and honest, and this opens a door that makes me question that."

The bill would require voters to provide multiple forms of identification when requesting a mail-in ballot.

Vote by mail was available in the 2020 election – a temporary move in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly half of the ballots filed in that election were sent by mail; only around one percent were rejected.

The House passed the bill on a near-party line vote. The one Republican who voted in support of the bill, State Rep. Michael Smith (R-Pike Creek), asked his Democratic colleagues to promise that they will work with House Republicans to shore up election security protections in future legislative sessions.

"I voted yes in good faith without a promise," he said, "and I hope in you good faith sit down across the table and pretend to listen to what I have to say."

Corrected: June 30, 2022 at 8:03 AM EDT
Corrected to reflect that Mark Cutrona works for the nonpartisan Division of Research.
Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.