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Seaford council considers allowing businesses to vote in local elections

Seaford’s city council is considering whether to allow businesses — also known as artificial entities — the right to vote in municipal elections, making the western Sussex County city the largest municipality in the state to consider such a measure.

Delaware is one of only three states that allow municipalities to give nonresident property owners voting rights in local elections. When Rehoboth attempted to extend that right to artificial entities — including Limited Liability Corporations — in 2017, the ACLU and government transparency advocates joined residents opposing the measure, prompting Rehoboth’s mayor to withdraw the proposal.

Seaford’s proposal draws from the only two towns in Delaware that allow artificial entities to vote in municipal elections: Henlopen Acres and Fenwick Island. Seaford already allows nonresident individuals who own property in the city to vote in municipal elections.

The current draft proposal would allow non-resident property owners to vote through a designee with power of attorney; a person owning multiple properties could only vote once. In contrast, business owners who rent space in Seaford could not vote.

Seaford Mayor David Genshaw says the proposal emerged from requests from business owners seeking a say in city decision-making that can impact their utilities payments, revenues and investments.

“The genesis is that there are people who have invested a ton of money in our town – in businesses – and then wonder why they can’t vote, but their employees can, just because they live outside of city limits," he said. "They have a valid point.”

Some council members took issue with excluding business owners who rent space in Seaford, arguing that they are impacted by the council's decisions no less than business owners who own their properties. But others raised concerns that allowing businesses who rent properties to vote would open the door for large corporations like Walmart, which rents property along Route 13, to vote in local elections. Councilman James King argues council needs to be consistent when granting voting powers.

“We can’t pick and choose and say, ‘he’s a small business owner that doesn’t own the building but is renting the property and living outside Seaford – he can vote,'" he said. "And when it’s a large corporation, we say, ‘ah, well.’”

The council opted to table the proposal to clarify details. If adopted, the charter amendment would require the approval of the General Assembly before taking effect.

Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.