Seaford officials were planning on making what they thought was a simple change to the city charter, something that several other Delaware municipalities had already done.
That change would allow someone who lives outside the city — but owns a business in Seaford that is registered through an LLC — to vote in municipal elections.
The change needed to be approved by the Legislature, and House Substitute 1 for House Bill 121, sponsored by Rep. Daniel Short, R-Seaford would have done that.
The bill – which has one additional sponsor, Sen. Bryant Richardson, R-Seaford – was set to be heard in the House on Tuesday, but it was pulled from the agenda before it could get a vote.
Short and Richardson did not immediately reply to requests for comment.
While the substitute bill was changed on June 1, it hasn’t yet been heard in the House. On May 10, it was reported out of the House administration committee with five votes on its merits.
Mayor David Genshaw said he had no idea there would be any opposition.
“We anticipated zero backlash, zero interest,” he said. “This is a charter change. Businesses being allowed to vote in the state of Delaware is legal. The state of Delaware had approved other communities to do this. We literally borrowed another community’s charter change and put it into ours.”
Seaford heard a lot of hate
City Clerk Ashley Heinicke said that the city has gotten a lot of hate over the past few weeks, mostly from out-of-town callers.
“I understand people’s reservations,” Heinicke said. “I think I’ve been called a fascist like three times in the past week, … but I get it, like I get the frustration behind it. … [I] haven’t really gotten a whole lot of feedback or pushback from the residents themselves. It’s just been people who live outside of town or saw it on the news or something to that effect.”
Genshaw said businesses looking to register to vote would have to verify who owns the LLC ,and then a person designated by the LLC would have to sign the book of registered voters specifically for businesses to verify their identity, and only that designee would be allowed to vote for that LLC.
“We have pretty good control,” he said. “We do a pretty good job at our elections. We don’t have a lot of double voting. I don’t think we’ve ever had any. So I don’t think that’s a real concern. I think we have controls in place to prevent that from happening.”
Heinicke said the city already allows people who own businesses under their own name but don’t live within city limits to vote in municipal elections.
Of the 60 to 70 nonresidents who own businesses in Seaford and are registered to vote in municipal elections, about four to five of them actually vote, Heinicke said, similar to the low turnout usually seen in municipal elections.
In Seaford’s most recent municipal election, on April 15, 340 ballots were cast for two city council positions, out of 5,020 registered voters that can vote in Seaford municipal elections.
Heinicke said that when officials in March developed a list of entities in Seaford that this change would apply to, they found 234 registered LLCs that own property in Seaford.
Mayor says it’s fair
Genshaw said he thinks it’s only fair for businesses that pay taxes to have a say in Seaford elections.
“We’re asking them to hire our people to work,” Genshaw said. “We’re asking them to pay taxes, to use our utilities. And we’re asking a lot of these and to allow them one vote in a city election, I don’t know … why we wouldn’t want them to participate? … I do not expect any of this will sway any election. I just don’t expect that.”
While a Newark businessman was able to vote 31 times in a municipal election in 2019, Genshaw said that something like that won’t happen in Seaford.
“It would be documented. They would have to come in with the power of attorney,” Genshaw said. “It would be in our book of registered voters, and we would work that process tightly. Again, we’re not Newark or Wilmington or Dover. We’re not Philadelphia, we’re Seaford, Delaware.”
The substitute bill before the House differs from the original bill by adding a section that requires entities to provide Seaford with a certification of beneficial owners so the city knows who owns a company to cross-reference it with the voter registration in Seaford and in Delaware.
The cross-referencing is done to prevent someone who owns two different companies from being allowed to vote twice.
Heinicke said that the certificate of beneficial owners is a new report that, starting on Jan. 1, requires anyone with an LLC to file with the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network stating who owns the LLC.
“But now because of things like money laundering and offshore accounts,” Heinicke said. “They’re requiring that people who own businesses in an artificial entity have to report who that person is that owns it, so that one person can’t take advantage of our system and vote seven different times.”
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