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Sussex County’s absentee ballots could double for Tuesday’s primary

The number of absentee ballots in Sussex County could double the record set in the 2016 general election.

Counting absentee ballots for Delaware’s presidential primary is a surprisingly quiet process, sporting none of the bombast that has marked the national campaigns.

While polls don’t open until Tuesday, the Sussex County Department of Elections Director Kenneth McDowell and elections workers began counting absentee ballots last month.

Their first attempt was scuttled when a new machine arrived from Wisconsin just as they started, and the office postponed opening ballots to get the new machine set up and running.

But on June 25, the only noise in the large white room was the ripping open of mail-in ballots. Workers — representing the Democratic, Republican and Independent parties, as required by state law — opened 1,000 ballots at a time, sorting them by hand into voting districts and then into alphabetical order.

“It’s the old way of doing it,” McDowell said. “That’s what we found slowing us down the most.” A sorting machine is supposed to be coming soon.

Those ballots were then fed into a large gray voting machine that scanned them and stored the information on county computers, to be sent to the state at 8:01 p.m. Tuesday night, along with the rest of Sussex County’s votes.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the state ordered absentee ballots to be mailed to all registered Democrats and Republicans to vote in the presidential primary. Only party members got ballots because Delaware has a closed primary, meaning only party members can vote.

A new law just signed by Gov. John Carney will allow Delaware residents to vote by mail in all 2020 elections — which include the state election primary Sept. 15 and the general election on Nov. 3.

That mail-in process will follow the same track that absentee ballots do, state officials said.

“All we’re doing in the state of Delaware is trying to keep people out of the way of COVID and not get anybody sick,” McDowell said. “It’s something this generation has never dealt with.”

He thinks it’s been successful so far, partly because the state has refined methods and installed extra counting machines.

Sussex County mailed out 21,743 ballots for the primary, he said. As of Friday afternoon, 15,633 ballots had been returned.

The county has been counting absentee ballots each day and will continue to until 8 p.m. Tuesday, McDowell said.

The number of returned ballots dwarfs the previous record of 9,600, set in the 2016 general election when everybody could vote, not just party members.

Having two voting machines, both new, has been a boon, McDowell said. Processing about 10,000 ballots may take six and a half hours on one machine, even if the process runs smoothly.

“It worked out really well,” he said. “We’ve had two machines running at a time for a long while now.”

Friday was the last day for the county to mail out an absentee ballot, and the mail will run on Tuesday until 8 p.m. so any last-minute ballots can be counted. 

McDowell said the county wasn’t really set up to do 21,000 absentee ballots, but the system has worked.

Sussex County is considered the heart of Republican support within the state but McDowell — a Democrat appointed by the state Board of Elections — said he only got 50 letters expressing frustration with the expansion of absentee voting.

Most of the concerns came from independents frustrated by Delaware’s closed primary process rather than focusing on the debate around absentee ballots and mail-in voting.

All of the paper ballots are kept in a vault. The county began getting them before the first scheduled election Feb. 28, which was postoned once to June 2 because of the coronavirus and the postponed again to Tuesday.

“Now we’re on number three,” McDowell said. “During that time any ballot that was voted, we kept in the vault. It’s been secure until we started reading.”

Even with the rise in the number of absentee ballots and expected increase in mail-in voting, McDowell said that some voters just like going to polls.

For those voters, the county will open 24 voting centers — one for every town in the county. Any Sussex County voter with ID to cast a ballot at any one of them, no matter where he or she lives.

But you must live in Sussex County, McDowell said. If you live in a town such as Milford or Woodbridge, both of which lie on the county line, you cannot vote in Sussex if your property actually falls in Kent County.

The state only required six polling places, but because Sussex County is 49 percent of the landmass of Delaware, McDowell didn’t want people to have to travel far or wait in long lines once there.

“Normally, I’d have all 73 locations open, but it’s not normal,” McDowell said.’

With the voting supercenters, as he calls them, “You could be in Rehoboth for the day, but live in Bridgeville, and rather than travel 45 minutes back to Bridgeville, you just walk in with your ID and vote.”

Masks will be required to vote, he said. The machines will be wiped down after each vote, hand sanitizer will be available and poll workers will wear masks or face shields.

While round one of the state elections will be over Tuesday night, McDowell’s office is just getting started with its 2020 election work. School board elections are coming, and ballots will be sent out again for the Sept. 15 and Nov. 3 elections, he said.

“It’s progress at work,” he said.

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