In Delaware, a Battle of Wills

Sussex County Delaware -- like other Delaware counties -- holds elections for Register of Wills. Couldn't an appointed or career official do the job better?
by | August 12, 2010

Even on vacation I can't escape state and local government. So, fresh from a trip to Rehoboth Beach, I bring you the story of the race for Register of Wills in Sussex County, Delaware.

To me, the story is that there is a race for Register of Wills at all. On the car ride to Rehoboth, I kept seeing yard signs for Cindy Green and Greg Fuller, candidates for Register of Wills. I was puzzled. Wouldn't registering a will just involved sending a form to an office somewhere? Couldn't a low-level bureaucrat handle that? Why is this an elected office? Yet people in Sussex County  seemed pretty passionate about the race for Register of Wills, at least judging from the number of yard signs that I saw.

One thing I wondered is whether Register of Wills actually is an important office with broad responsibilities that just happens to have an anachronistic name -- somewhat like how county judges in Texas are equivalent to county executives elsewhere. But, the Register of Wills really does seem to be all about wills. Here's how Sussex County's Web site describes it:

The Register of Wills office is responsible for the efficient administration of all estates being probated in Sussex County. The Register of Wills grants authority to personal representatives to administer estates and is responsible for making sure that those administrations are carried out in compliance with Delaware Law.

That description makes the position sound a little more complicated than just sorting paperwork, so maybe this is a job that ought to be done by a high-level bureaucrat, rather than a low-level bureaucrat. But an elected official? The point of holding elections is so that government reflects the views of the citizenry. How many people actually have an opinion about how the Register of Wills is doing his job?

The race for Register of Wills in Sussex County is very much a partisan affair. Fuller is the Democratic incumbent. He was appointed in late 2008 by Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, a Democrat, to replace a Republican who had been elected to the legislature (don't ask me why the governor fills vacancies for county office). Now Fuller is gunning for a term of his own this fall with the support of local Democrats.

Green is a Republican and self-described conservative. Her campaign kickoff was attended by the Minority Leader in the Delaware Senate. I'm willing to guess that most of the people with Green and Fuller yard signs are just partisans who would like to elect as many Democrats or Republicans to office as possible.

That, I think, is the best argument for why there shouldn't be elections for things like Register of Wills. If this were a civil service job or an appointed position, applicants would have to demonstrate some qualifications for the task at hand. In contrast, for a race this far down the ballot the vast majority of voters will know nothing about the candidates other than their party affiliations.

It's in that context that Jack Markell, Delaware's Governor, suggested folding the responsibilities of the county Registers of Wills into state government in his State of the State Address this year. The legislature didn't approve the proposal.

Maryland and Pennsylvania also definitely have elected Registers of Wills -- hence the Registers of Wills and Clerks of Orphans' Court Association of Pennsylvania. I'm not sure about other states. But, lots of places have elected offices that arguably shouldn't be elected. Sometimes, there's even empirical evidence that appointed officials can do a better job.

Since you're now probably as emotionally vested in the outcome of the Sussex County Register of Wills race as I am, I will say that Sussex County has a substantial Republican tilt (60% for Bush in 2004, 54% for McCain in 2008) that should give Green a pretty good chance to knock off the incumbent. Fuller took 44% of the vote when he last ran countywide in 2008 in a race for Clerk of the Peace. Here, by the way, are the responsibilities of the department led by the Clerk of the Peace according to Sussex County's Web site:

The Marriage Bureau issues marriage licenses, officiates Memorable Marriage ceremonies, provides certified copies of marriage licenses issued in Sussex County, Delaware, and reviews proposed legislation regarding marriage issues.

Sounds like another job for an elected official, doesn't it?

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer

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