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electionlineWeekly — June 26, 2014

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I. In Focus This Week

Big changes coming to little Delaware
Legislation creates one, unified state board of elections

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This week, the Delaware General Assembly approved broad legislation that will fundamentally change the way elections in the First State are administered, if not conducted.

Under House Bill 302 the state’s election law will be amended to consolidate the three county—Kent, New Castle and Sussex—elections boards into one 11-memember state board of elections.

Unlike most, if not all other states, currently elections staff in each of Delaware’s three counties are state employees although they report to local elections boards and not the state.

Once the new law — it is expected that Gov. Jack Markell (D) will sign it — is in place, the county elections staff will remain state employees only they will report to the newly create state elections board.

The new board would be composed of 11 members with two members from each county, two members from the City of Wilmington and two at-large members. The members will be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate.

Existing county boards of elections will remain, but they “would be subject to the policies and directives of the state board of elections.”

According to Elaine Manlove, the current state election commissioner, there were no specific problems that inspired the legislation, but a desire to streamline the process in a state with approximately 683,000 registered voters.

“There was not a specific problem – the Task Force focused more on consistency,” Mannlove said. “Delaware is different than most states.”

The Task Force Manlove referenced is The Election Law Task Force, created in 2013 to review all aspects of how Delaware conducts its elections.

While there were no specific problems, Charlotte King president of the Delaware League of Women Voters noted that her organization— which supports the legislation — observed inconsistencies from county to county and hopes this new system will eliminate that.

“Our subsequent review of the process in each county has indicated that on occasion poll workers are following different procedures such as the definition and use of voter IDs,” Kin said. “This bill will allow the state board of elections to provide more effective oversight and direction to the three county election boards.” 

The change does not take place until July 1, 2015 and Manlove said she will spend the next year determining how best to implement the processes.

No funding was allocated in the legislation, but Manlove said she does not anticipate any financial needs to implement the new system and even expects that ultimately there will be a cost savings through group purchases.

“I anticipate the biggest workload will be insuring that this newly created agency has four offices that are doing everything in the same way,” Manlove said. “Getting everyone on the same page will create challenges. Once we are there, it will be business as usual.

Reactions to the impending law have been mixed. Howard G. Sholl, Jr., deputy director of the Department of Elections for New Castle County didn’t really see the need for a change and isn’t sure how his county will be impacted.

“I am not sure of the impact, and won’t know until the new structure is in place. The local boards were very responsive to local issues,” Sholl said. “I would hope the state board would be as responsive.”

The legislation, which was approved 25-15 in the House and was met with some concerns by legislators, with the biggest concern being potential politicization of the process as well as the loss of independence for county boards.

However, with little debate, the Senate unanimously approved the bill. The legislation is also supported by voting rights groups in the state including the aforementioned League of Women Voters.

King added that it will certainly lead to a better utilization of the resources of the state board by increasing the administrative oversight for the local offices. 

“While voter suppression is not a major problem in Delaware at this time, I feel that this bill can be seen as a pro-active response to recent Supreme Court decisions that compromised the effectiveness of the our federal Voting Rights Act,” King said. “If HB 302 becomes law, it will help Delaware maintain its excellent reputation as a State that has demonstrated a respect for the voting rights of its citizens.” 

As for how the average voter thinks about all of this? Sholl doesn’t think they care so much one way or another.

“I am not sure that most people care. They want elections to be held without serious problems,” Sholl said. “As long as that happens, I don’t believe they would care how it happens.”