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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 nonresident property owners – including artificial entities – 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 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 nonresident property owners.

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.

The proposal faced fierce criticism from civil liberties groups in the House Administration Committee Wednesday. 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 less than 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.