Wilmington voters confused days before primary election after polling place changes

Jeanne Kuang
Delaware News Journal

Two days before statewide primary elections, Mark Powell still didn't know where he was supposed to vote. 

Delaware elections officials changed the polling place for his neighborhood, Wilmington's Hilltop, twice in the past month and a half, but not everyone was notified. 

"What is going on?" Powell said in confusion on Sunday evening. "Come on, Delaware. ... The vote is sacred."

Two election precincts covering the Hilltop and Tilton Park neighborhoods were initially slated to vote at the Hilltop Lutheran Neighborhood Center. 

That's one of three locations all in the same two city blocks where Powell has been accustomed to voting in the 59 years he's lived in Hilltop. They're within walking distance from his house, and he usually accompanies neighbors who are senior citizens to the polls. 

A polling place sign

Powell got a postcard Aug. 4 notifying him he was to vote at the Hilltop Lutheran Neighborhood Center in Tuesday's primary election. His wife received the same card. 

But the center, which has a day care facility, backed out of serving as a polling place out of concern of coronavirus spread.

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When the Department of Elections reassigned the two precincts to vote at Delaware Technical Community College on Aug. 11, Powell said he and his wife never got a notification in the mail. 

And when officials on Sept. 1 again reassigned the precincts to vote at the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, to give residents a polling place they reach on foot, Powell and his wife similarly weren't told. That change was made just two weeks before the election.

Instead, they heard about these changes through word-of-mouth in the neighborhood. Some households did get notifications of the changes, while some got mail about only the first change. 

People head in to vote at the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, in Wilmington.

"My next-door neighbor got notification to go to the Greek Orthodox church," Powell said. "But her mother, who lives in the same house, never got that. Her notification says she goes to DelTech."

Tracey Dixon, director of elections for New Castle County, said both changes should have automatically generated new polling place cards to be mailed out to everyone in the two districts. If no addresses were changed, she said she did not know why some residents did not receive the new cards in the mail. 

"It does give me a little bit of concern," she said. 

Dixon said her department is using a new computer system that it adopted last year and will check with the system provider that all addresses got a new polling place card generated.

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Powell's group of neighbors was discussing where to vote on their porches over the weekend when 5th District City Council candidate Christian Willauer found them while canvassing. 

"It was like a debate, of where do we vote," Powell said.

Willauer told Delaware Online/The News Journal she'd spoken with about 50 people who never received notification about the polling place change from Delaware Tech to the Greek Orthodox church.

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"Voters are left confused," she said. "They don't know if they show up at DelTech if their vote will be counted, or if they show up at the Greek church."

Voting at Delaware Tech would have been inconvenient for many in the neighborhood who don't have cars, Willauer said. The church is just blocks away from Hilltop, and no one would have to walk under the I-95 overpass. 

Without official notification of his polling place, he's planning on heading Tuesday to both Delaware Tech and the Holy Trinity Church because he doesn't want to cast a provisional ballot at the wrong place.

"How do I know the vote will be counted?" he asked. "This is insane."

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Dixon said a polling place inspector at Delaware Tech will be notified of the confusion and redirect Hilltop and Tilton Park voters to the Holy Trinity church. Voters cannot vote at polling places where they are not assigned, she said.

"We tried to accommodate them because of the distance," she said. "Everything is in place for them to vote at Holy Trinity church."

Contact Jeanne Kuang at jkuang@delawareonline.com or (302) 324-2476. Follow her on Twitter at @JeanneKuang.