Formed in the wake of the 2020 election, a new Voting Rights Coalition in Delaware, that's a combination of organizations and advocates, aims to encourage voters and policymakers to consider reforms that they believe will improve access to voting.
"We want to encourage that everyone who has the right to vote can exercise that right in a meaningful, transparent, and safe and secure manner."
"We support reforms that broaden access for all eligible voters to register and cast their ballot. Specifically, we support reforms that extend the voter registration deadline through Election Day, that ensure all registered voters are able to cast and mail ballots, and reforms that educate all eligible voters about the option to cast and mail an early-vote ballot," said Dwayne Bensing, an attorney with the Delaware ACLU, which is one of several organizations that are a part of this new coalition.
More than 160,000 Delawareans casted their ballots by mail in the 2020 election due to special provisions made because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The coalition will fight for passage of House Bill 75, the second leg of a constitutional amendment that would pave the way to make no-excuse absentee voting permanent.
"The way our state Constitution right now, in a very clearly and descriptive way [it] outlines the exact circumstances under which somebody can vote absentee. This prevents us from going into state code to amend absentee voting law...to make it more accessible and allow people to utilize it," said state Rep. David Bentz, who's sponsoring the measure. "Constitutions are really intended to sort of outline and make clear the rights that are granted to everybody, and what this provision in our Constitution, unfortunately does, it actually limits people's access to their right, by really condensing the circumstances in which they can vote."
Thirty-four other states already allow voting by no-excuse absentee ballot.
"The 2020 election is just a great example of how many Delawareans would like to vote this way if given the opportunity to do so every cycle. It was a very popular thing for people to be able to do, and I think it's one of those things that would continue to be popular outside the context of COVID-19 as we've seen across the country as people utilize absentee voting as their primary way to vote," said Bentz.
Maren Bertelsen of Middletown moved here from Washington State, where they only vote-by-mail.
"I was really surprised the first time I requested an absentee ballot that I needed an excuse to get one," she said. "I just prefer to vote by mail, it allows me to take my time; I don't have to worry that something unexpected could happen on Election Day and prevent me from voting."
Tom Irvine, who's on the Legislative Advocacy Committee for the Southern Delaware Alliance for Racial Justice, said expanded vote-by-mail will enhance voter participation.
"Most people in Sussex County live in small towns, and historically, they worked near where they lived; they work in agriculture; they worked in commerce; they worked in all sorts of professions. But now people are traveling, they're commuting...they drive from the western side to the eastern side to the job centers and the beach areas, and they work in agriculture, healthcare, hospitality, construction, education and everything else."
"It's very hard to go vote in a 12-hour window if you're working one or two jobs, if you're commuting, if you have a difficulty in terms of a narrow ground for early voting," so that's particularly true of people of color, and we have a large both African-American and Latino population in Sussex County, working and traveling, and being a key part of our community. Being able to vote more easily, register more easily and vote more easily, is particularly important. And the 12-hour window on a Tuesday in November, it just doesn't make it anymore."
Opponents of vote-by-mail said it raises the risk of fraud. Irvine refutes that claim.
"The Heritage Foundation's website for the last decade or more they've been tracking voter fraud in the country; they've been looking, and looking and looking, and they find none. There is none. Every time there's voter fraud, and it's prosecuted, anywhere in the country, they list it. It's basically so miniscule, it doesn't come up statistically as anything," said Irvine.
Irvine said all 34 states that use no-excuse absentee voting operate differently, but share a commonality in that people must request an early ballot, and it's mailed to them at their registered address. He added signature verification is a key safeguard.
"So no one can collect thousands of early ballots without robbing thousands of mailboxes, and then have none of those people report that their ballot is missing. That's implausible, it doesn't happen. To forge a ballot, you'd have to get the address, forge the ballot, forge the signature, and send it in because signature verification is very, very important. So ballot verification and signature verification are done uniformly by election departments. When they get that, they make sure that it is that person's ballot. If the signature doesn't match, in most states, there's staff, and there's also members of the major political parties, who are appointed by the parties, to check those signatures."
Irvine said voter security was put to the test in the 2020 election with more than 60 lawsuits filed and evidentiary hearings held.
"By all accounts that I can see as a decades of an non-partisan election lawyer in me, was the most secure election in American history, no matter what some headlines say," he said.
The second leg of the constitutional amendment that would pave the way for permanent no-excuse vote-by-mail awaits a House floor vote, after making it out of committee.
Other groups that are a part of the coalition include: Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. - Gamma Theta Lambda Chapter, Common Cause Delaware, Delaware State Association of Letter Carriers, Delaware United, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., Wilmington (DE) Alumnae Chapter, League of Women Voters of Delaware, Network Delaware, Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc., Alpha Nu Sigma Alumnae Chapter, Southern Delaware Alliance for Racial Justice, Unitarian Universalist Delaware Advocacy Network, VOTAMOS / We Vote Coalition, and YWCA Delaware.