Delaware Republicans block plan to end absentee ballot restrictions

An elections worker processes a mail ballot.

An elections worker processes a mail ballot. (Matt Smith for Spotlight PA)

The second leg of a constitutional amendment fell short of the two-thirds vote needed to pass in the Delaware State House this week.

No Republicans voted for the amendment, even though many of them were in the House in 2019, when the first leg of the amendment was approved in a landslide 38-3 vote.

Democratic Rep. David Bentz, sponsor of the bill, suspects the national debate over mail-in voting likely played a role in the GOP members switching their votes this time around.

“Unfortunately, I think the rhetoric around this particular policy has been tainted … over the last year,” he said on the House floor Thursday. “From 2019 until now, nothing has changed about the efficacy, the security of absentee voting in Delaware or nationwide. The only thing that has changed, unfortunately, is the political rhetoric around it.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Currently, Delaware law permits absentee ballots only if people won’t be able to vote in person because they are participating in “public service” of the state or nation, working elsewhere, are on vacation, have an illness or physical disability, or have a religious reason.

Last year, Delaware made an exception and expanded mail-in voting as part of the state’s emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Delaware GOP sued, claiming mail-in ballots violated the state Constitution’s limits on absentee ballots.

That lawsuit was rejected by Delaware’s Chancery Court.

Republican House Minority Leader Danny Short said members of his caucus reexamined the amendment since that 2019 vote and came up with significant reservations about the bill.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“I believe they intend to turn no-excuse absentee voting into a ‘vote-by-mail’ system — a scheme that will benefit Democrats. Any doubt about the partisan nature of this issue was erased after today’s vote,” Short said. “We may not have seen the last of this bill, but House Democrats have given us even less reason to trust their good intentions on this issue.”

Whether because of that lawsuit or comments from then-President Donald Trump questioning the accuracy of mail-in votes, Republicans in Delaware were much more hesitant to use vote-by-mail in last year’s election. During the primary vote in September, just 23% of Republican votes came by mail. More than half of Democratic voters sent their ballots by mail.

Absentee voting has been in place in Delaware for 60 years. The amendment would allow voters to cast their votes via absentee ballots for no excuse.

Because constitutional amendments must be approved by a two-thirds vote in two consecutive General Assembly sessions, the absentee amendment originally approved in 2019 will fail if it is not approved by the end of next June.

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal