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House passes bill to allow voting by mail

Rep. Richard Collins (R-Millsboro) said the issue is bound to end up in court.

Get ready to lick an envelope to cast your ballot in the presidential primary and general election.

Meeting online Thursday evening, the Delaware House of Representatives passed a bill that would allow voting by mail in 2020 elections 25 to 13. Ayes and nays split along party lines. Two people abstained and one was absent.

The bill now heads to the Senate.

Along the way, the House crushed three amendments filed by Republican reps to House Bill 346, which was introduced by Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear, and co-sponsored by 37 Democratic senators and representatives.

A fourth amendment was withdrawn by Rep. Charles S. Postles Jr. (R-Milford), drawing a “Bless you my child” from House Speaker Peter C. Schwarzkopf after three lively debates about the first amendments. 

During debates about the first three amendments, Delaware Election Commission Anthony Albence was pulled in via the internet to answer questions. Issues raised included whether residents should have to provide copies of IDs in mail-in ballots, whether traditional polling places would be closed because people were voting by mail and whether people would be able to file ballots in the name of dead people still on the rolls.

“This is a critical, critical option,” Longhurst said, leading into the debate on the bill. She said health experts expect a resurgence of the virus in the fall and the state needed to be ready for that. 

Rep. Richard Collins (R-Millsboro) questioned whether the assembly had the right to adopt the bill.

“We are overriding the constitution,” Collins said in the debate over the bill itself. “This is not a casual action we are taking here.”

He also said the law was guaranteed to end up in court.

Longhurst’s bill cites the COVID-19 pandemic as a reason to allow voting by mail. While the bill restricts that to 2020 elections, it will alter the state’s election law to have voting by mail mirror the same procedures that absentee ballots do.

The financial disclosure on the bill estimates it will cost Delaware $829,000 to provide voting by mail, but says the costs will be covered by federal CARES funds that can only be spent for COVID-related expenses.

The law would require the State Elections Commission to mail an application for a ballot to every registered voter. The financial section of the bill said the commission expected 50 percent of votes to be cast by mail.

In 2016. 94,000 votes were cast in the primary and 441,590 in the general election in November. 

The cost for printing, processing and postage for each ballot is estimated at $3 each. Additional expenses would include seasonal staff and equipment to process the ballots.

Albence said that 55,000 people already have returned absentee ballots out of 550,000 applications sent to Republicans and Democrats for the July primary. It is a much higher rate than normal, he said.

House Minority Leader Daniel Short (R-Seaford) wanted to know why the state just didn’t use absentee ballots rather than alter state law. Longhurst and Rep. Quinn Johnson (D-Middletown) said the money was allocated for new programs and enhancing the absentee program might not qualify.

Rep. Bryan Shupe (R-Milford) wanted to know why the state couldn’t simply alter absentee ballots and then heavily educate people to use them instead of spending so much on voting by mail. That money could be used to help small employment and with unemployment, he said.

Johnson, co-chairman of the state Joint Finance Committee, said that federal money was allocated to specific things such as elections and couldn’t be repurposed for other things.

Rep. Mike Smith (R-Pike Creek) wanted to know why the governor didn’t just include mail-in voting among his emergency orders. Longhurst said she didn’t know. Smith said he would have liked it if the bill could have been debated before a committee.

Collins questioned whether the assembly had the right to adopt the bill.

The house’s lawyer assured him the action was legal. 

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