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Voter registration bill passes General Assembly

Cape Gazette of Lewes, Delaware

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A bill banning municipalities from imposing long residency requirements for municipal elections passed the General Assembly, literally at the midnight hour.

House Bill 395, which was amended by the Senate, was passed by the Senate at 12:15 a.m., July 1, and the amended measure passed the House at 12:51 a.m. The law, awaiting signature by Gov. Jack Markell, would take effect Jan. I, after this year's elections. The law eliminates municipal residency requirements such as Rehoboth Beach's six-month requirement for resident property owners. Municipalities cannot make voters wait more than 30 days from the time they become a resident property owner before they are eligible to vote.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Melanie Smith, D-Bear/Newark, was intended to bring Delaware municipalities in line with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling barring long wait times. However, the bill ran into problems with local officials because some Delaware towns allow nonresident voting.

The Senate amendment, penned by Sen. Ernie Lopez, R-Lewes, excludes nonresident voters, who will be subject to the voting requirements of the municipality. The idea behind the amendment is that resident voting is a right, while nonresident voting is a privilege bestowed by the municipality, which can impose limits. Lopez's amendment also inserted the Jan. 1 timeline so the measure will not interfere with upcoming elections such as Rehoboth's election Saturday, Aug. 13, and the national elections in November. The Senate passed the bill by a 17-2 margin; when it was sent back to the House, the amended bill passed 37-0 with four absent. The original bill passed the House 37-2.

The vote serves as a victory for beach towns like Rehoboth, which can preserve nonresident voting while allowing residents an easier path to voting.

"I think it's a great resolution to it," Mayor Sam Cooper said.

He said the change will have a ripple effect in that Rehoboth will likely revisit voter registration requirements to ensure people are really residents. Right now, Cooper said, the registration form asks for only a name and address. The city will likely enact a charter change because current voter registration rules for municipal elections are different from those for referendums or special elections.

"We have to bring it all in line at some point," Cooper said.

When the city commissioners act on the change remains in question as there is a federal lawsuit still in the courts challenging Rehoboth's voting process. Resident Jackie Nichols filed a lawsuit last year in the U.S. District Court challenging the six-month rule in the wake of the June 2015 referendum on funding to build an ocean outfall to dispose of the city's treated wastewater. The city was victorious in U.S. District Court, which dismissed the suit, but Nichols' attorney, David Finger, appealed the case to the US. Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia.

"I've been very reluctant to put it on an agenda and express my views knowing that I'm being sued," Cooper said.

Finger said the state legislation is long overdue. Nichols' lawsuit seeks an injunction to prevent Rehoboth from enforcing the six-month rule in the future. He said the new legislation would make an injunction moot, since the six-month rule will no longer be legal for residents.

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Original Publication Date: July 8, 2016

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