Only person with ‘heartbeat,’ not companies, should vote in Newark elections, council says

The News Journal | by Karl Baker

If you don’t have a heartbeat, you shouldn’t be able to vote in a Newark election, the city council unanimously agreed Monday.

A resolution passed during its meeting aims to limit voting in local referendums to “every natural person” – the latest in a Delaware backlash against limited liability companies participating in the electoral process.

The proposal approved Monday night officially asks the General Assembly for approval to change the city’s governing charter to add a clause.

“What is the definition of a ‘natural person’?” Councilman Jason Lawhorn asked during the debate over the proposal.

“It’s a real person who has got a heartbeat that is not some sort of artificial entity,” Newark’s city solicitor replied.

Lawhorn’s question and the legalistic response highlights a debate that has emerged over the past decade, from the Supreme Court to local Delaware municipalities, over whether corporations should share some of the rights that are given to people.

In Newark, it is about whether property-owning business entities should be allowed to vote in a local referendum, a specific kind of election that determines whether the city can borrow money.

For council members on Monday, the answer was a resounding, “no.”

While one person, one vote has been ingrained into the collective civic consciousness of the United States, Newark residents learned last summer that it was possible for a city developer to vote dozens of times.

That is because the city employs a peculiar voting system when holding a rare ballot referendum.

It allows non-resident property owners, whether human or business, to vote.

It works like this: Any voter who owns a house within Newark city limits can vote just once. But if that voter transfers the home to a newly-created LLC, they then can vote twice – once as a regular voter and again as a representative of the business.

Critics argue that the result of such a policy – in combination with a recent proliferation of easy-to-form LLCs controlling individual parcels of land – is an election system that gives extra influence to any single owner of multiple properties.

A property manager in control of 31 LLCs, which own 31 parcels of land in the city, can vote 31 times.

A report of that exact circumstance happening last June during a $28 million capital referendum sparked the LLC backlash in Newark.

“This uses affluence … to dilute the votes of registered voters who are actual citizens of Newark,” Amy Roe, an environmentalist and city activist, said at the city council meeting.

31 LLCs, 31 votes

During an October city meeting, Councilwoman Jennifer Wallace proposed that Newark change its governing charter and strip property owners of the ability to vote multiple times.

“I just think it’s fundamentally undemocratic,” she said last year.

The resolution, passed on Monday, follows a similar “one person, one vote” action passed last year by the Rehoboth Beach city council. That proposal’s bill breezed through the General Assembly’s House of Representatives with no opposition and no public concern about damaging businesses.

Speaker of the House Pete Schwartzkopf, who sponsored the bill, referred to it as cleaning up the language in the charter.

“They were having trouble with people owning more than one piece of property in town voting more than once,” he said.

A Senate committee on elections last week passed the Rehoboth Beach bill with support from three of its five members.

At the Newark meeting, John Kowalko, the city’s Democratic representative in the House, said he would propose similar legislation.

“I will be taking a copy of (the resolution) to Leg Hall tomorrow and reading it to the attorneys so that they can create us a bill,” he said.

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