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Return Day. Say what?

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Sussex County, Delaware boasts a unique political tradition surrounding election time. It’s called Return Day, and it features parades, partying, and much festivity. But that day, the Thursday after an election, wasn’t always so lighthearted. It was in fact born in political strife, a solution to the violence that broke out between the Tories and the Whigs during the 1787 election. 

Sussex County residents from the western and southwestern portions that year had to deal with roads far less developed than Delaware’s other two counties.

Despite the rugged travel requirements, voters were expected to get horse, buggy, oxcart, or whatever other conveyance they could muster and get themselves to the county seat for election day.

The Sussex County seat at that time was Lewes, on the coast, a town whose populace tilted toward the liberal Whig party. Voters from the furthest portions of the county, overwhelmingly conservative Tories, complained that they were discriminated against. 

Traveling such a far distance for only one day, they said, placed a hardship on their businesses, considering they had to return home, and THEN return to Lewes a second time in order to learn election results. 

Return Day parade, Georgetown, DE 1908
1908 Return Day parade in Georgetown, DE.

They were keen to observe that this encumbrance reduced their numbers at the polls and therefore skewed election results against them. 

The Tories had been stalwart advocates of remaining with Britain, the Whigs not, and the Revolutionary War had only concluded 4 years before. Feelings of mistrust in November 1787 were still running high on both sides. The cauldron finally boiled over.

That year the election had to be rescheduled three times because of mobs armed with clubs, muskets, and swords, demanding to know how citizens arriving in Lewes planned to vote. 

Finally the Delaware Legislature passed an act to move the Sussex polling place to Nanticoke Hundred, near the western end of the state. 

Predictably, the travel hindrance worked exactly as before, only in reverse. A mere 3% of voters from Baltimore Hundred, on the coast, cast a vote that year, while 50% of the voters were local. 

The violence and the travel handicap both prompted officials to move the Sussex County seat to Georgetown, a town not dominated by either party, and as importantly, centrally located.

The 1791 election in Georgetown offered new, extended poll openings from Tuesday morning until Wednesday evening, followed by result announcements the day after. 

Thursday, then, was the day voters could return home–Return Day–-having voted and learned the outcome in one trip. 

The winners of that year’s political races paraded around the town circle in horse pulled carriages, and the losers and the chairs of the county’s political parties performed a ceremonial “bury the hatchet” into a tub of sand. 

In 1811, voting districts were created across the state, but the Board of Canvassers still met two days later in Georgetown to announce the final election results.

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