Posted: June 27, 2014
THE POLITICAL HARDBALL BEHIND AN ELECTION BILL
By Celia Cohen
Forget the talk about streamlining the election offices. Take with a grain of salt the discussion about better enforcement of campaign finance violations.
They might be good arguments, but they are not the underlying reason the Delaware General Assembly just voted for a radical reorganization of the way the election law is administered.
Two words. Kent County.
This was old-fashioned political hardball, and Kent County struck out.
Actually, an election bill was all but inevitable, anyway, with or without Kent County. The organizational chart for the election offices was about as structured as a plate of spaghetti.
There is an election commissioner, appointed by the governor, and three county election departments, one each for New Castle County, Kent County and Sussex County, but the election commissioner does not have hire-and-fire power over the directors in the counties. Instead, there are three bipartisan county boards that do.
The election commissioner's office and the three county departments all do things their own way, and they more or less have made it work through the years, but lately Kent County has really been doing things its own way and it is not necessarily working.
Kent County routinely reports the returns from its polling places last and late on Election Night. This is practically a political felony.
Then there was the situation in 2008. Trey Paradee, a Democratic candidate, was celebrating at Return Day two days after the election, when he learned he did not defeat Pam Thornburg, a Republican representative, after all, as the Kent County election department first reported, but lost the seat in western Kent County by 50 votes. (He did win in 2012.)
There is also what happened last year, when Kent County needed a new director. Although the county boards hire the directors, they customarily take their cue from the county chairs of the political parties. John Mancus, the Kent County Democratic chair, wanted Abby Betts, his predecessor, but the post went in an inside job to Doris Young, who worked in the county election department.
The political powers-that-be were not happy with Kent County. Out popped the election bill.
The legislation proposed to disband the county election boards and replace them with a state board of 10 members, split evenly between the major political parties. The election commissioner would also sit on the board and vote to break ties.
The state board members would be appointed by the governor -- but from lists of candidates provided by the state party chairs -- and confirmed by the state Senate. From here on out, the state board would hire the county directors.
The legislation, a substitute version of House Bill 302, finished making its way through the legislature this week, and it seems safe to assume Jack Markell, the Democratic governor, will sign it into law, since his office put out a press release extolling it.
Kent County screamed bloody murder the whole way.
Colin Bonini, a Republican senator from Kent County, led the opposition in the upper chamber. He zeroed in on a part of the bill designed to toughen the enforcement of campaign finance laws by giving the election commissioner the authority to hire investigators to look into complaints, including anonymous ones, and to refer the findings to the attorney general for possible prosecution.
Bonini decried this as the empowerment of an "elections czar" who could make partisan mischief. He made a point of saying he was not casting aspersions on Elaine Manlove, the Democratic election commissioner who was in the Senate to testify on the bill, but Bonini noted she would not be there forever.
"Do you know who's going to have your job in three years?" Bonini asked.
"I'm hoping that I do," Manlove replied.
Whatever, but it certainly looks like she gets to outlast the election folks in Kent County.