Draft election rules trouble resort towns

Bethany Beach Town Council Member Lew Killmer has a bone to pick with proposed state regulations governing how municipal elections are run.

Killmer recently noted his attendance at a Sussex County Association of Towns meeting where the controversial changes to the state’s Title 15 regulations on municipal elections were addressed. Killmer volunteered to put forward a presentation on the subject for legislators at the group’s February meeting, so he dove into the hefty 47-page document and found some startling issues he particularly wanted resort-area residents and officials to be aware of.

Topping that list — the state makes no provision for the mailing of absentee ballots for any but a handful of reasons. And those reasons do not include simply living outside of the area. That means towns could not legally mail absentee ballots to their non-resident property owners, even in towns where non-resident voting is allowed.

That’s an aspect of voting that primarily affects the coastal area and its part-time population. Town Manager Cliff Graviet noted that the proposed legislation is still in committee and could change before being voted upon by legislators. Town Solicitor Terrence Jaywork has commented that it was likely an oversight, rather than an intended consequence.

But Killmer wants to make sure the legislators are aware that some significant revisions may be needed in the existing draft – which he noted is the fifth or sixth draft of the legislation.

The impact of that one aspect of the legislation: Bethany Beach could not mail absentee ballots to 89 percent of its current voter base, Killmer calculated. Those non-resident property owners would have to trek to the beach and vote in person, or not vote at all.

Another aspect of the legislation that could dramatically impact local politics: it requires would-be town council candidates to be residents of the town for at least one year. That would mean no non-resident council members, in an area where interests are sometimes divided between residents and non-resident property owners.

Further, the legislation would require the mayor of a town to be a resident for at least three years. Not only could non-residents or recent full-timers not follow through with any ambitions to take over the top spot, but Bethany Beach’s practice of electing the mayor from among council members would present a conflict.

In that town’s case, there could potentially be council members who could receive votes for mayor but who would be ineligible to serve. And there could even be a case in which no member of the council would be eligible. Hypothetically, seven people could garner support while they were still part-time residents, run for town council as first-year residents and end up making up the entire council with not a single three-year resident among them.

The proposed legislation, Killmer said, also creates potential problems with the town’s Board of Elections. It mandates a seven-member board, compared to the existing Bethany Beach board with five members. Killmer said getting even five people to serve is difficult.

That difficultly would be further exacerbated, since the board members would also be prohibited from being at the polls during voting. That would mean finding another four or five people to run the polls on election days, Killmer said. He was further concerned about potential state requirements for the voting machines themselves.

And anyone choosing to serve on the Board of Elections would also have to fill out a financial disclosure form. The form — and its requirements — weren’t available, Killmer noted, but he was concerned that any such requirement would serve as a deterrent from serving on the board. And that would further compound getting the additional people to both serve on the board and work the polls.

Finally, Killmer noted the potential cost to the towns of trying to meet the new requirements. It’s less of a concern in affluent Bethany Beach, but he said poorer towns would have to look at the costs associated with perhaps having to buy new voting machines and certainly to make the required changes in their charters (legal costs, for sure) to formally mandate the new election mechanisms for each individual town.

Killmer said his concerns about the proposed rules went beyond those major elements but that they, in particular, could have a tremendous impact on Bethany Beach, as well as the other towns in the area.

He noted that municipalities had never been asked to give input on the draft legislation and emphasized that the revisions were begun in response to absentee ballot irregularities in Smyrna, when no other towns had reported similar problems, ever.

Vice-Mayor Carol Olmstead, present at the Jan. 19 committee meeting at which Killmer aired his concerns, recommended the town begin lobbying legislators to get their concerns heard before final drafts were made.

Killmer said he planned to outline the problems with the current draft for legislators at the upcoming SCAT legislative meeting.