Ocean View looks at election changes

A snafu with town council districts in the 2007 elections led Ocean View officials to take a deeper look into the town’s election laws recently. And while the problem that led to the controversy over districts has yet to be fully resolved, the town’s Board of Elections had its hands full with other anticipated changes to election regulations at an Oct. 15 meeting, thanks to new rules instituted last year by the Delaware legislature.

Town Solicitor Dennis Schraeder led the group through a review of the town’s charter and ordinances related to its elections, as well as of the amended Title 15 of Delaware law dealing with municipal elections.

“Just about everything you can do wrong in an election was done,” Schraeder explained of the 2005 elections in Smyrna, Del., which had led the legislature to tighten regulations on how municipal elections are conducted.

Those regulations came into effect on June 30 this year, leading many local municipalities to examine what changes in their own charters and codes are needed as a result, as they deal with their upcoming elections. New code and policies must be in place at least 60 days prior to an election, and any sections of town charters or codes that conflict with the new state regulations are officially deemed to be repealed, Schraeder told board members Monday.

Ocean View limits voting rights in regular elections to adult U.S. citizens who have been residents of their town for at least six months and who have registered to vote in the town. Thus, the town was spared from concerns about absentee ballot availability to non-resident citizens that led many of the area’s coastal towns to press the Delaware legislature for changes to the rules earlier this summer.

Those issues have largely been resolved now, and neighboring Bethany Beach conducted its first post-change elections last month, complete with a newly mandated week minimum of waiting after votes are counted before elected candidates can be sworn in to their new posts.

For Ocean View, that is likely to be the biggest change they will have to make due to the new election laws. The town has had a long-established practice of swearing in new council members on the Tuesday after an election, generally before a council workshop is held that evening. The swearing-in date of the Tuesday after a Saturday election is even part of the town’s charter.

That will mean a charter change for the town. Board members said they expected that future post-election council workshops could either be postponed until after a swearing-in could legally take place, or that — as in 2007 — a lame-duck council member could participate in their final council workshop, prior to the swearing-in of their replacement. Either way, the charter’s definitive Tuesday-after-election swearing-in date will have to be changed.

There will also be some changes in procedure for those running the elections as a result of the new state law. Among those changes:

• Deadlines previously landing on a Saturday, Sunday or holiday will move to the next business day and not to a prior Friday, as had been the case sometimes in Ocean View. Those deadlines will also be at 4:30 p.m. instead of 5 p.m., as done in the town to date.

• Strict limitations on the people allowed into the voting room have been added, to include only Board of Elections members, elections officers, those voting or waiting to vote, a child 17 or younger accompanying a voter, Department of Elections employees, the commissioner of elections and those permitted to assist a voter. Each candidate is also permitted to have a single challenger represent them in the voting room, to challenge the qualifications of voters, if needed.

• New absentee ballots, with features designed to enable tracking of the ballots to help prevent voter fraud, including the numbering of ballot envelopes and separate carrier envelopes with an affidavit of voter eligibility printed directly on them. Availability of ballots will also change to no later than 30 days before an election, up to the fourth day before the election. Ballots would have to be returned prior to noon on the day before voting.

• Board members will have to be particularly careful about the handling of absentee ballots, which are not to be handled at all by anyone not designated to do so and which are to be rejected for any possible indications of tampering, such as an unsealed or apparently resealed carrier envelope.

• Voters will have to present an acceptable form of ID to prove their identity and address, in addition to being registered to vote. That ID can include state-issued driver’s licenses and IDs, as well as a lease or utility bill, but the board can waive the requirement if they vote to do so.

• Candidates and campaign members will have to keep a strict distance of 200 feet from the voting room and avoid harassing or preventing easy ingress and egress of voters from the voting room.

• Complaint and challenge procedures for pre-election and voting-related issues will be established.

• A notice of election will have to be posted 20 days prior to the election, and not the two weeks that is stated in Ocean View’s charter.

• Voting resulting in a close finish of a half-percent difference or less between two candidates or among the two candidates seeking a final position among several would require a recount of all absentee ballots.

• The board will need to notify by registered mail previously registered voters who have not voted in two successive elections that they are being removed from the town’s voting rolls. Recently, this has been done by regular mail, though the town’s code calls for registered mail.

Schraeder recommended that the town allow the new state Title 15 to establish many of the procedures that current town code is lacking, rather than write their own version of the code in an attempt to be compliant, to avoid any possible legal challenges in the future.

Town Manager Conway Gregory said he also felt this would be simpler for the board and the town. The town would simply default to the state’s regulations in such areas. The town, Schraeder said, is generally in compliance with the new state law.

Gregory said he would look to have a draft of any needed changes made in the coming months, as the town looks to its April 2008 elections and the requirement to have new election procedures in place at least 60 days prior to that time. Election board members will also need to undergo required training from state election officials during that time.

The board is expected to meet again in November to continue its discussion of the election law and changes suggested by Schraeder, after having reviewed an extensive selection of town code, charter and state law in the intervening weeks.

Meanwhile, town engineers are working to finish the town’s revised election district map, which has been the document by which competing candidates are determined for at-large voting for council seats.

The new map is to include detailed indications of which streets and subdivisions are included in a given district, and the engineers are also to create a matching verbal description of the areas encompassed by each of the districts — the area in which the 2007 elections turned out to be flawed, as the existing verbal descriptions did not precisely match the district map.

Schraeder said that, ideally, district lines should run down the middle of a street, for enhanced clarity, and he asked Gregory to make sure that the streets were clearly labeled before the finished map is provided to him for review and eventual adoption by the town.