Election reflections: Long lines, write-ins, Republican Sussex

November 13, 2020

Sussex County voters cast about 130,000 ballots in the 2020 general election Nov. 3. That was almost 72 percent of the county’s estimated 182,000 voters, much higher than the next highest 68 percent turnout from previous elections.   

Of those 130,000, 44,000 were absentee or mail-in, far more than the absentee counts of the past. Credit the coronavirus for that. Many preferred the safety of their homes for filling out their ballots rather than joining crowds at the polls.

Sussex County Department of Elections Director Kenneth “Bo” McDowell said of the 49,975 mail-in and absentee ballots requested, 44,109 were returned. That’s an impressive 88 percent rate.

That also means many thousand fewer people went to the polls than in the past, even counting in the higher voter turnout. But still, many people stood in lines this year - long lines - to vote when in the past they would breeze right through. That’s had McDowell scratching his head. 

“I think it just comes down to the fact that people were voting slower on the new machines. We didn't account for people taking longer. The greatest number of voters this year were in the 55 to 74 age group.  The touch-screen ballots would not be as familiar to them as the older voting machines that they were used to and which we used for 30 years. 

“The election overall went well this year but we’ll make some adjustments next time around.”

McDowell said he will add more machines for the next election. “We had 128 machines out for the primary election and put out 190 for the general election knowing that we would have at least a third more voters than in the primary.” That’s counting the 41,993 registered voters who are neither Democrat or Reopublican and wouldn’t have voted in the primary. 

“And,” said McDowell, “we padded a few of our polling places with extra machines where we’ve had heavier voting in the past and expected the same this time. Shields in Lewes, Roxana, Laurel and Delmar. For example we had eight machines at Shields. But people moved through quicker in the past.  Rarely were people in the booths more than a minute, but it was longer this time.”

Write-in votes and social distancing in the lines also probably contributed, said McDowell. “Thankfully we had nice weather on election day.  That was a blessing.”

Speaking of mail-in votes

Patti Drago, an unaffiliated candidate, tallied an impressive 10,403 write-in votes in her belated effort to win the Sussex County Third District Councilmanic seat. Her six-week, military-precision campaign still wasn’t enough to come close to Republican Mark Schaeffer’s 16,558 votes. Schaeffer beat Drago at all but one of the 18 polling places for voters in the Third Councilmanic District.  

Drago’s 1,207 write-ins in the seventh precinct of the 20th Representative District at the Shields Elementary polls easily outdistanced Schaeffer’s 712 votes in that same precinct. That precinct includes most of in-town Lewes. Voters in the fifth precinct of the 20th, who also voted at Shields, gave 1,362 votes to Drago compared to 1,960 for Schaeffer, his highest vote count from any precinct.

Drago also broke the 1,000 mark with her 1,407 write-ins from voters at the downtown Lewes Fire Hall polls who live in the first precinct of the 14th Representative District south and east of town. Schaeffer received 1,677 votes at the firehouse polls.

While Drago gave Schaeffer a good run in and around Lewes and southward, she fell far short - by as much as two, three and four times - of Schaeffer’s counts at polling places in Milton, Ellendale and the surrounding westerly rural areas of District Three.

While statewide Democrat candidates, including Joe Biden, won Delaware by a 59 percent to 40 percent margin over Republicans, Republican candidates still beat out their Democrat opponents in Sussex in every contested race from Donald Trump at the top of the ticket to Clerk of the Peace candidate Jay Jones at the bottom of the ticket. Trump received 71,168 votes in Sussex compared to Biden’s 56,647.

Pete Schwartzkopf, who ran unopposed for his 14th Representative District seat, continues as the only elected Democrat in Sussex at the state and county level.

At last count, there were 69,552 registered Republicans in Sussex County, 64,064 registered Democrats, and 41,993 registered as Other.

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