Posted: Sept. 26, 2013
STILL VOTING LIKE IT'S 1999
By Celia Cohen
Delaware elections are not run by Rube Goldberg. It only looks that way.
Goldberg was the cartoonist famous for thinking up contraptions that demanded complexity when simplicity would do. So it is with the administration of the state's election law.
It is a jerry-built, jury-rigged and Delaware-made classic, a hodgepodge with crisscrossing lines of authority where everybody is in charge and nobody reports to anybody, state and county offices are involved, and the Democrats and the Republicans get equal say.
It is a miracle of democracy anybody gets elected around here. It is also probably a legislative felony there has not been any attempt to straighten it out -- until now.
An election law task force, created by the General Assembly, had its first working session Thursday at the election training facility and warehouse in New Castle.
Not even a half-hour into the meeting, the task force decided the current structure ought to go.
Organizationally there is an election commissioner, appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate, but the commissioner does not hire the director and deputy director in all three counties. They are appointed by county election boards, split evenly between the two parties, with the director from the same party as the governor and the deputy director from the other party.
Oh, and the election departments in New Castle County, Kent County and Sussex County are staffed by state employees.
"They call us the Department of Elections, but really, we have four separate budgets, and we are four separate agencies. We do mostly work through it, but it's a convoluted system," said Elaine Manlove, the election commissioner who is chairing the task force.
Reconstituting the chain of authority would be the biggest change in elections here since the electronic voting machines were introduced statewide in 1996.
The way it is now, it is a last gasp of the old commission system. It used to be that a sprawl of boards and commissioners ran the state's administrative functions -- the highways, the state police, mosquito control, whatever -- until 1970, when it was replaced by a Cabinet reporting to the governor, although vestiges remain here and there.
"It makes no sense that the counties don't report to the election commissioner. I come from the military," said Earl Jaques, a Democratic state representative on the task force and a retired colonel from the Delaware Air National Guard.
"There definitely needs to be consolidation," said Colin Bonini, a Republican state senator on the task force.
"Just the smallness of Delaware, to me that makes sense," said Margaret Rose Henry, the state Senate's Democratic majority whip who is also on the task force.
The form the restructuring might take was left for another meeting, although it certainly sounded as though the county boards might not be long for this world. The task force has until March to complete its review, anticipated to be the basis for legislation.
The task force has plenty more to study, and it has drawn a wily assemblage of veterans of election law wars as participants, including four legislators and five lawyers.
Take Henry, for example. She is a walking, talking testament to the peculiarities of the election law.
The Republicans drafted Henry, even though she was a Democrat, to run in a special election in 1994. After she won, they had to go to court to keep her on their ballot to run for re-election. It had to do with a blackout period in the law preventing her from re-registering as a Republican. Henry caucused for a time with the Republicans but eventually switched sides of the aisle.
Then there is Bonini. He is entertaining thoughts of using a loophole in the election law to run simultaneously for re-election and for state treasurer in 2014, although he could only hold one office if he won both (or neither if he lost both.) A couple of Libertarians actually did file dual candidacies in 2012, although being Libertarians, they went virtually unnoticed.
In the room there were also Betsy Maron, counsel to the Democratic Party, and Richard "Shark" Forsten, counsel to the Republican Party. Both of them have a storied history in the election law fray.
Most recently, they were on opposite sides of the court case that allowed the Republicans to substitute Brian Pettyjohn as their state Senate candidate for Eric Bodenweiser, who bailed off the ballot in 2012 as he was about to be indicted for child sex crimes. Pettyjohn is a senator, and Bodenweiser is still awaiting his day in court.
It just about goes without saying the election law can use a comprehensive overhaul, beyond the departmental structure.
All change costs something, though, and in Delaware's overwhelmingly Democratic environment, Bonini managed a little wry nostalgia for the county election boards, as politically balanced as they are anachronistic.
"It's the only place we're even," Bonini quipped.