Voter registration: Doing well, but we can do better

April 22, 2014

“There is no right more basic to our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.”

That’s the opening from Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts’ majority opinion in McCutcheon vs. the Federal Election Commission, the 5-4 decision that abolished limits on the number of candidates a donor may support monetarily.

The line struck me because it seems justices in the minority could have used the same opening.

But today’s topic isn’t campaign finance reform, but voting itself. A recent forum, sponsored by the AAUW and League of Women Voters in Sussex County, explored the issue of voting rights in Delaware. About 40 people attended the meeting, held at the Beebe Medical Arts Building on Route 24.

Two of the speakers, Charlotte King and Sandy Spence, were from the league, and the third was Elaine Manlove, commissioner of the state Department of Elections.

The news was mostly good. According to Manlove, Delaware has been relatively free of the long lines and other Election Day problems that have plagued other states.

Delaware has also been at the forefront at registering voters, with most people now signed up at DMV. Manlove recently testified before the U.S. Senate about the state’s success with voter registration.

“I’ll brag a little about our voter registration record,” Manlove said. “There are so many ways in Delaware to register to vote.” In addition to DMV, people may also register at state Health & Social Services, state Department of Labor, county election departments and online, plus at third-party registration drives.

But the league is interested in going further. Spence discussed bills the league is following, none more closely than HB 105, which would allow same-day voter registration. On April 3, the measure passed the House 24-15. It was assigned to a Senate committee, where it will likely remain until it garners enough support to pass.

“This is the big one,” Spence said.

Spence outlined reasons for the bill, including the fact that states with same-day registration typically have a “10 to 12 percent greater turnout than we have in Delaware.”

Recently, Spence said, she and Manlove were on a conference call with officials from other states, including Wisconsin, which has had same-day voter registration for 40 years.

“None of them had problems,” she said. Fears of fraud didn’t pan out.

Democrats, who generally favor same-day registration, outnumber Republicans 13-8 in the Senate, so the bill is likely to pass, but there are objections.

Let’s look at a few of them.

One recent Lewes letter writer said the state has more important issues to address than same-day registration, especially the economy, an opinion echoed by Sen. Ernie Lopez, R-Lewes, when I spoke to him.

I understand this argument’s appeal. Certainly, Delaware faces many challenges. But let’s fact it. All we’re talking about is one up or down vote. That would hardly prevent legislators from tackling other issues.

Another letter writer complained that people registering on Election Day would hold up the voters behind them. It would be like waiting in line at the grocery store when someone’s writing a check.

First, I would be happy to wait a couple of minutes if it meant allowing someone to exercise his or her voting rights. It’s amazing how little people care when the voting rights in question belong to someone else.

Second, according to Manlove, people wouldn’t wait longer. Every polling place already has what’s called an “update table” where voters are sent if there’s a problem with their registration.

These update tables would also handle same-day registration. Manlove said she expects the poll workers at these tables could handle the increased load without increasing staff.

In other words, not only would voters not wait longer in line, but also the state would not incur further expense manning the polling stations. She acknowledged she would have to revisit the expense issue if same-day registration didn’t run as smoothly as expected – assuming it’s passed – but she appeared quite confident.

And who would know better than Commissioner Manlove?

Finally, there’s the argument that voters who wait until Election Day to register are more likely to be uninformed.

Spence said, “As far as I’m concerned, that’s just a slur on minorities and students.”

As for myself, I couldn’t help wondering: Who are the “informed voters?” Are we going to start quizzing people before they vote?

For most of us – let’s be honest, virtually all of us – “informed voters” are those people who vote the same way we do. I’ve read that people who are the most informed about the issues – often those on the political extremes – are also those most likely to vote a straight ticket. Not necessarily an indication of a thoughtful voter.

But those objections remain, and Lopez said that the hundreds of people he saw at the Lewes Tulip Festival last weekend didn’t mention the issue to him. He said he’s gotten a half dozen emails, mostly from activists.

So maybe people don’t care about the issue. But they should. As Chief Justice Roberts said, voting is our most basic right.


Clarification: Sharp-eyed reader John Gilbert, formerly of DelDOT, alerted me to something confusing in last week’s column. A sentence about DelDOT’s budget should have read: “Moving DelDOT’s operating costs from the Trust Fund back into the General Fund is a good idea.” Yes, that makes more sense.

  • A number of accomplished writers will be appearing in the Politics column every Tuesday on a rotating basis to explore the dynamic world of politics at the local, county, state, national and world levels.

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