Bethany Beach absentee ballots fail the test

When Bethany Beach Vice-Mayor and new Charter and Ordinance Review Committee (CORC) Chairman Tony McClenny offered his committee members absentee ballots and fictitious identity cards to test the town’s absentee ballot system on Oct. 19, he didn’t get the results he expected.

“We went from 80 percent good to 80 percent bad,” he said with a note of mixed chagrin and concern. His precaution of not asking the committee members to use their own names turned out to have been worthwhile.

Indeed, four out of five of the committee members had improperly filled out an absentee ballot packet from the town’s September council elections, despite being aware that they were being tested on their ability to follow the associated directions.

Back in September, approximately one in five of those who had voted by absentee ballot had had their official ballots rejected — in some cases, for the same reason as those four invalid test ballots.

For the CORC members, according to Election Board head Faith Denault, each rejected ballot was attributed to the failure to seal an envelope.

In the case of the September election ballots, Denault said, some voters had failed to seal an envelope. Others had included their required proof of identity in the same envelope as their ballot, rather than the separate envelope included in the packet — necessitating the ballot be compromised in order to check their identity.

Still others had switched the envelopes, putting the ballot and identification in the envelopes assigned to the other form. In each case, the would-be voter had failed to follow the specific instructions of the absentee ballot in some significant way.

In all, 50 would-be voters had slipped up in September, invalidating their ballots and costing them the right to be heard. Particularly following on an election where council seats were decided by six — and later one — vote, McClenny was determined that kind of disenfranchisement should not happen again.

Despite efforts, voting procedure flawed

“I thought we had done a good job,” he said prior to the test, referring to review and reform of the town’s voting code in 2002 as part of CORC. “Now I have some doubt, and I hope to resolve that doubt.”

But instead of doing as he’d hoped, McClenny’s test proved what town officials had feared — that the existing absentee ballot process may be inherently flawed, and perhaps more severely than they’d ever thought.

“I did find some items that I found misleading or unclear — not intentionally, of course,” he stated of his initial review of the ballot. But overall, he said, he had been confident in existing procedures.

So, too, had been Council Member Jerry Dorfman.

“I don’t know of a place in the U.S. where it’s easier to place your ballot,” Dorfman said, referring to previous town efforts to make voting for non-resident property owners as easy as possible, even though it’s unusual for municipalities to allow non-residents to vote. “We tried to make it as easy as possible and include as many people as possible.”

“I don’t know what else we can do,” Dorfman said. “We’ve never had a complaint the entire time I’ve been here.”

Election Board and CORC member Fulton Loppatto said he’d been similarly surprised by the number of failed ballots. “I felt it was pretty clear,” he commented on the procedures and how he had perceived them — before the ballots were counted.

Denault emphasized that state law mandates that voters by absentee ballot must comply with all instructions or risk their vote being invalidated. And her fellow Election Board members supported her in stating that they felt they had followed the correct procedures and hadn’t rejected any ballot that could have legally been counted.

One envelope too many?

In addressing the failures, Loppatto pointed to the Delaware state absentee ballot instructions, which feature an illustration to accompany the text. Likewise, the committee noted discrepancies and language issues that might confuse voters using the town’s ballot.

The two envelopes in the ballot packet are both marked “official election ballot.” One is a 4-by-6-inch white envelope, the other a 4-by-9-inch yellow or manila envelope that is referred to in the instructions as a “brown carrier envelope.” The smaller of the envelopes is to contain only the completed ballots, while the larger is to contain both an identification affidavit and the smaller envelope with the completed ballot sealed inside.

In contrast, state absentee ballots simply include a ballot and a single return envelope.

But Denault pointed out that the state ballot does not require proof of identification at the time of voting. Instead, voters are required to have their absentee ballot application notarized as proof of their identity, before they receive the ballot and vote.

McClenny said he didn’t fault the instructions that accompanied the ballot but rather the process itself. “It is explained well, but the process is overly complex,” he said. “Too many people have failed for too many reasons. I believe we do have a concern and that we need to do something about it.”

Changes ahead for ballots

Beyond the issues that Bethany’s absentee voters had to deal with in 2006, McClenny noted additional changes to election procedures and ballots that might be required under the recently passed House Bill 410, which made amendments to the state’s Title 15 on municipal election procedures and will go into effect in June of 2007.

Committee members said they were particularly concerned whether language in the revamped Title 15 regarding proof of identity would allow non-resident property owners to use their non-Delaware-issued IDs as proof of identity for voting.

Early drafts of the changes were notably unfriendly to coastal towns’ allowance of non-resident voting, and there is lingering concern that details like valid forms of identification could conflict with that allowance.

As it stands, valid identification for voters in the state includes specifically Delaware-issued driver’s licenses and IDs, but the list also includes “any other documentation that a person can reasonably and commonly accept as proof of identity and address,” in addition to federally issued IDs and utility bills.

For her part, Denault emphasized that changes to the ballots should reflect the nature of the town’s population. “Anything we can do to simplify the ballot, to make it easier, would be good,” Denault said, acknowledging the prevalence of retirees — many of whom plan to spend their elder years in the town or owning property therein.

CORC member John Gaughn suggested the town consider modeling their packet after the simpler state one, perhaps abandoning the second-stage identification requirement in favor of a requirement for a notarized ballot application.

But board member Charles McMullen said they felt that was an important security feature — one that ensured the appropriate person was the one actually casting the ballot and not just the one who had requested it.

And Council Member Lew Killmer noted the much higher level of importance of absentee ballots in the town’s elections than in state elections, where they are a tiny fraction of votes cast. With Bethany Beach’s policy of allowing non-resident property owners to vote, the portion of absentee ballots is much higher and often decides an election.

The burden of proof that each absentee vote is valid is that much higher as a result, he suggested. “Only in the coastal communities is it so important.”

Denault said she also took issue with the requirement for Bethany Beach voters to include their Social Security number in the returned packet.

“We had people leave comments,” she said of the spot where the numbers are supposed to go, noting their concern over identity security. She recommended the requirement be stripped.

Those could be just some of the changes in store for Bethany’s absentee voting procedures in the coming months. Additional changes will also come into play with the Title 15 amendments, with which the town will have to comply come next June and the next council election in September of 2007.

McClenny asked CORC members to review Title 15 and come to the committee’s next meeting, in November, with ideas on what changes will need to be made and what other changes simply should be made.

Town officials are hoping the work done now to make those changes will serve to better guarantee that each voter has their voice heard.