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Seaford charter amendment to allow nonresident property owners to vote faces delays

A proposed amendment to Seaford’s charter that would allow artificial entities — including LLCs — to vote in city elections was pulled from the House agenda on Thursday with little advance notice.

Seaford’s city council narrowly voted to send the amendment to the General Assembly for approval last month, with Mayor David Genshaw — who first raised the proposal in March — casting the tie-breaking vote.

It would make use of a peculiarity in state law allowing nonresident property owners, including artificial entities, to cast votes in municipal elections. Two towns — Henlopen Acres and Fenwick Island — already have similar laws on the books, but Seaford would be by far the largest Delaware municipality to enfranchise corporate entities.

Under the proposed charter amendment, artificial entities like Limited Liability Corporations (LLCs) would be allowed to choose a designee to vote on their behalf. Though the amendment was cast as an opportunity to give business owners a voice in city decision-making, it would not allow business owners leasing commercial space to vote; only nonresidents and entities that own property.

Though Genshaw told fellow city council members in March that the charter amendment would only add a dozen LLCs to the city's voter rolls, but according to a list sent to the council by Seaford's city clerk before their final vote in April, nearly 250 corporations own real property in Seaford and could be eligible to vote in municipal elections. Those businesses include Delmarva Power & Light — the city's primary utilities provider — and dozens of real estate agencies. The bill would also allow Seaford's churches and property-owning nonprofit organizations to vote in municipal elections.

Given the low voter turnout in Seaford's municipal elections, the votes of those corporations could be enough to shape election outcomes. Only 340 of the city's nearly 5,000 eligible voters cast ballots in Seaford's April 15 city council election; incumbent councilman Jose Santos — one of two council members to vote against the charter amendment — lost his reelection bid by only 54 votes.

In a House Administration Committee hearing on Wednesday, the proposed charter amendment faced fierce opposition from civil liberties groups. The ACLU, for instance, noted that the vast majority of business owners wealthy enough to own property in Seaford are white; Seaford, in contrast, is roughly 50 percent white.

Common Cause Delaware Director Claire Snyder-Hall called the proposal "absurd," arguing that Delaware should not allow a local charter change that would effectively give wealthy property owners two votes — one in Seaford and one where they reside.

"[The amendment] discriminates against business owners who operate businesses in Seaford but don't own property, and that disproportionately impacts businesspeople of color, which is grossly unfair," she added. "That said, however, I don't think people who run businesses in Seaford but don't own property should get to vote if they don't actually live there. Voting should be reserved for flesh and blood people who actually live in the town of Seaford, and not because they own a business, but simply because they live there."

House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf — whose district includes the other municipalities with similar rules — says that while he is opposed in principle, he is also wary of overruling Seaford City Council.

“I think it's a bad idea, and once it’s in, it’s hard to take away," he said. "However, I do feel strongly about small town governments. They elect people to make decisions on behalf of their town. We usually take what they ask for and codify it.”

The bill was scheduled for a vote on the House floor Thursday, but its sponsor, State Rep. Daniel Short, pulled it from the agenda for additional changes.

Previous attempts by other municipalities to adopt similar rules prompted similar outcry. When Rehoboth attempted to extend the vote to artificial entities in 2017, the ACLU and government transparency advocates joined residents opposing the measure, prompting Rehoboth’s mayor to withdraw the proposal.

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