Voter apathy a problem for local government

Posted Saturday, March 27, 2021 By Noah Zucker

Apathy toward local politics, and government in general, is a big problem nationwide. Downstate is no exception.

“It’s tough,” said Milford Mayor Archie Campbell. “We had four council people up for election (this year). Not one person stepped up to run against them. That’s unheard of as far as I know.”

Mayor Campbell said he talks to a handful of other local mayors “probably once or twice a month, and they have the same problems.”

Smyrna Mayor Robert Johnson agreed that it’s a challenge to get people out to vote.

“When I ran for mayor in 2019, it was a little over 1,100, maybe 1,200, people who voted between the two (contenders),” he said. That was out of a population of roughly 11,000.

“People are just disconnected from us,” Mayor Johnson said. “I think if you ask the average person in most towns, ‘Who is your mayor? Who are your council people?’ they don’t know.”

Mayor Campbell also said it’s common for people he sees around Milford to not realize he’s the mayor.

Dan Cannon, a longtime voting rights activist and lifelong Seaford resident, said voter apathy is a problem in his town, too.

Less than five years ago, he said “only about 900 people were registered to vote in Seaford, of over potentially 5,000 or more.” Since then, Mr. Cannon said the number has increased to at least 1,350.

The bill

Statewide, many agree that part of the reason voter registration and turnout are so low in many small towns is that it’s confusing to register.

But Rep. Bryan Shupe, R-Milford, hopes to change that with a new bill that eliminates the double-registration requirement statewide.

“There’s actually 45 out of the 57 municipalities in the state where you have to register a second time with the local Town Hall (in addition to registering with the state) to be able to vote within their local municipal elections,” said Rep. Shupe, a former Milford mayor.

The bill has not been filed yet, but Rep. Shupe said he is sending out for sponsors on Monday. He expects state Sen. Elizabeth Lockman, D-Wilmington, to be its primary sponsor in the state Senate.

“I know it’s ancient,” Mr. Cannon said of the double registration practice. “It’s ancient to the point where you have to be registered in a physical book. If you’re not in the book, you can’t vote.”

Mayor Campbell said he was shocked by this when he first moved to Milford from New Jersey. There, and in most other places in the U.S., it’s uncommon for people to need to register to vote more than once.

Rep. Shupe said he first became concerned about the practice when looking into poor voter turnout in his own city.

“When I was the mayor of Milford, I started looking at why the voting numbers were so low,” he said. “The one number that was really interesting to me was how many people were registered to vote in the city, and that was only about 1,200 individuals at the time, and our population was over 10,000.”

Although he didn’t get enough support from his counterparts in the Milford government to make changes there, he did carry his distaste for the practice with him to the state House of Representatives, where he hopes to eliminate it throughout Delaware.

“This bill will allow those individuals who are registered in the state of Delaware and meet those residential criteria within these municipal boundaries to be able to vote without registering a second time,” he said.

Rep. Shupe said he understands that the system as it currently exists is an unintentional form of voter suppression. But Mr. Cannon doesn’t see it as an accident.

“Small groups of people tend to dominate local politics. The fewer people vote, the easier it is to control the vote,” he said.

Mr. Cannon said “there weren’t, as far as I know, until extremely recently, any type of voter-registration drives at all” in Seaford.

Shift already underway

Many Delawareans think Rep. Shupe’s bill is a good idea. In fact, Georgetown and Seaford have already passed legislation to begin using the state’s rolls rather than their municipal ones.

“Georgetown did this in 2017, and they immediately saw an uptick in registrations,” Rep. Shupe said.

“The town book had 849 registered voters,” said Town Manager Gene Dvornak. “For this past election, the number of registrants within city limits was 3,244.”

He said the issue of transplants not realizing they needed to register a second time was a big motivator for the new law. In Georgetown, he said those people have generally been allowed to register on the day of the election and vote. In Milford, people in that position were turned away at the most recent election.

Seaford has also committed to using the state’s rolls instead of the municipal ones, but the practice won’t go into effect until the next election. Still, that would be before Rep. Shupe’s bill would apply, if it’s passed.

“The council did make the decision to go away from the city’s registration process and move to the state registration. However, it takes a charter change,” said Trisha Newcomer, Seaford’s economic development and community relations director. “We’ll actually use that new voter-registration process (for the first time) in the next election.”

Mr. Cannon is a fan of both Seaford’s recent move and Rep. Shupe’s bill.

“I’m in favor of it,” he said. “I don’t fear that it’s an opening to voter-registration fraud.”

But some, like Mayor Johnson, see potential issues.

“It has pros and cons,” he said. “I’m still kind of thinking about (it).”

Concerns

While Mayor Johnson said the bill would make it easier to register to vote, he thinks that could present a problem in elections.

“You’re taking away some of our authority and regulation for people who come in,” he said.

“You have to live in the town for a year if you want to run for office, and you have to live in town for a certain amount of time just to vote” in Smyrna, Mayor Johnson said.

“People can move, and then, they can automatically vote in that town. I don’t think that’s good,” he said. “You can stack an election like that.”

Furthermore, Mr. Dvornak said the shift from the municipal rolls to the state ones was painless.

“It’s change, so change can sometimes be difficult,” he said. “In the case of Georgetown, the most extensive work was the first file that we got from the Department of Elections, where we had to go through everyone in our ZIP code and identify which ward in Georgetown they lived in.”

He imagined that the process would be simpler for small towns and more complex for larger ones.

“There might be some places like a smaller municipality where everyone in the municipality that’s registered is already registered with the state, so there would be very little effort,” Mr. Dvornak said. “Somebody like a Milford, Newark or Dover might” have a harder time.

Rep. Shupe and Mr. Dvornak pointed out that Dover, which is much larger than any other municipality Downstate, made the shift to the state’s rolls in the 1980s.

“One of the reasons they changed this was because they felt, in the ‘80s, it was used as voter suppression, especially in the Black community,” Rep. Shupe said.

In 1988, the NAACP filed a lawsuit that helped end the practice in Dover. At the time, current Mayor Robin Christiansen, then a council member, was one of the only people in power to encourage the shift.

Bigger problems

While Mr. Cannon said he is a fan of Rep. Shupe’s bill, he added that the roots of voter apathy run much deeper than a difficult registration process.

“I’ve been advocating for using the state registration system for local voting for a long time, but it’s only one step toward actively promoting both voter registration and actual voting itself,” he said.

“I also believe that in addition to using the state voter-registration system, then the municipal elections should be moved to the November to coordinate with the bigger state and national elections to increase voter turnout. There’s just a lot more people that vote in November,” Mr. Cannon said.

This was an idea Mr. Dvornak floated to increase voter turnout, as well.

Mayor Johnson agreed that voting reforms need to go deeper. He emphasized the need for schools and parents to instill civic values in American children.

“I learned a lot about politics at a young age” growing up in Smyrna, he said. “My mother was very heavy into politics, and she kind of took me around with her.”

The mayor said that “if your parents are involved with politics, then you’re more likely to be involved with it.”

The burden is also on the education system, he said.

“You have some government courses in school, but I think the schools could also maybe have a little more interaction with the government,” Mayor Johnson said.

He’s currently working with the Town Council to have Smyrna School District students shadow members of local government, so they can see what civic service is really all about.

“We’ve got to find a way to get more people involved,” he said.

But Mayor Campbell said that the incentives for people to get involved in local government are just too limited.

“I think the problem is people stepping up,” he said. “I just think people have their own lives, and they know that political positions are headaches. And of course, the media doesn’t help that any, so they don’t want that kind of exposure.”

Some people are more inclined to make their voices heard than actually be part of the solution, he said.

“I find that people complain a lot, but they don’t want to take the responsibility,” Mayor Campbell said. “They want you to do the job for them, but they won’t step up and take the bull by the horns.”

In some regards, he does find that flattering.

“The plus is they have confidence in you as a person to handle those problems,” he said. “I think if you’re handling the problem well, they’re content with that, so why step up?”

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