Bethany Beach officials on July 20 adopted a variety of changes to the town’s voting and referendum rules, aimed at maximizing the ability of some citizens to vote while restricting the votes of some non-residents and better ensuring that future referendums operate without confusion.
Non-residents who are trustees of a property in the town were officially granted the right to vote last Friday, reversing a previous prohibition on such votes. Vice-Mayor Tony McClenny noted that the change had come as more and more property owners were using trusts for their tax advantage but found that left them disenfranchised when it came time to cast a ballot in Bethany.
Those new voters still have to be individual persons and not a corporation or other such legal entity, but they are now able to cast a vote in Bethany Beach, regardless of their official place of residence. Council members cast a 6-1 vote for the change, with Council Member Wayne Fuller opposed.
The news was not so good for the spouses of those trustees. While McClenny had brought forward a section of code that would have also granted them the right to vote as non-residents, council members were not willing to involve the town in the level of oversight that would have been necessary to prove spouses of trustees were, individually, authorized voters.
Spouses who are not on a property’s deed, as would be the case with a trustee’s spouse, have been granted the right to vote in other coastal towns where non-resident voting is normal practice.
Town Solicitor Terence Jaywork said he had drafted such legislation for neighboring South Bethany, in order to address circumstances in which a couple might choose to have their primary residence in trust in one spouse’s name and their coastal second home in the other’s name, again for tax advantages.
But that argument fell flat when Bethany Beach council members considered the lengths it might be necessary for election officials to go to if they needed to verify a spouse’s current marital status before a vote could be counted.
“How would we determine who is a spouse?” asked Council Member Tracy Mulligan. “The current process is simpler,” he added.
Council Member Lew Killmer said he felt the process could be as simple as it is now for those who forget to bring identification: sign an affidavit attesting to the right their identity and right to vote.
Jaywork said the town could also require the spouse in question to provide a copy of the deed to the property, showing their spouse’s name, as well as documents verifying the marriage. But Mulligan was still concerned.
“I don’t want the town to be monitoring marriage records and divorces,” he said. “Deeds do not change over time,” he noted, except with official notification to county registrars, who send copies to the town.
Council Member Steve Wode suggested the town require non-resident spouses of property owners to register, as is currently a requirement only for residents who are not property owners, while McClenny said he was also concerned about the issue and the need to verify marriages.
But Town Clerk Lisa Kail pointed out a major problem with the idea of registering those new voters, as under Chapter 232 of the town code, only residents are required, or permitted, to register. Jaywork allowed as this would be a problem with the proposal, as Chapter 232 would also have to be altered to eliminate the conflict.
Acknowledging the problems involved with having to prove current spousal status for those spouses of non-resident property owners to be able to cast a ballot, council members on Friday decided not to adopt this portion of their voting changes, on a 5-2 vote with Killmer and Mayor Carol Olmstead supporting the change.
Non-resident votes limited to eight per property
The most sweeping change for voting rights that was adopted on July 20 turned out not to be quite as sweeping as it may have seemed.
On the surface, Section 7 of the new voting rules is the first official limitation on the number of non-resident property owners’ votes since the town granted such citizens the right to vote. A similar limit was proposed in April of 2005 but opposition from some and concerns about the impact of the change kept it from reaching a council vote.
Debate at that time centered on how many non-resident property owners of a given property should be permitted to vote. There were concerns expressed that, by adding many people to a single deed, a property owner could undermine the voting process and sway an election.
In 2005, with a proposed limit of non-resident voters per property, an estimated 132 votes were potentially eliminated, out of a total of 4,635 total potential voters. Under the 2007 proposal — to limit voting to a maximum of eight non-resident votes per property — only four votes would be eliminated.
Only two of the town’s 2,762 properties have more than eight owners listed on their deeds. Each of those has 10 owners. And while the minimal impact on the town’s estimated 4,798 voters was a point in the legislation’s favor, it was also pointed out as a negative.
“This eliminates four votes out of 4,798,” Killmer emphasized. “I don’t think we should spend much time on this.”
In contrast, McClenny said he felt the move didn’t go nearly far enough, echoing his position from 2005, when, as member of the Charter and Ordinance Review Committee (CORC), he championed that limit of two voters per property.
“Is it right that my wife and I, being here full-time, should have two votes … and a neighbor who doesn’t live here should have 10?” he asked his fellow council members on Friday.
“It’s not fair for investors who live next to me to have four, six, eight, 10 votes,” he said. “They shouldn’t have any votes. There should be a limit of two per property.”
McClenny’s position was so strong on the subject that Jaywork reminded him that the current voting policy set no limit on the number of voters from a given property.
“Right now, if they put 50 people on the deed, every one of them has the right to vote,” Jaywork said. “This would limit that. It’s a separate issue.”
While McClenny acknowledged that the change was an improvement — if a slight one that only currently removed four of those potential voters — and something he would vote for, Mulligan said he felt the fact that that core issue was not addressed in the new ordinance was a serious flaw.
“This doesn’t address the fundamental issue,” he said. “We haven’t discussed the fundamental issue. It doesn’t warrant this kind of attention for the small numbers that are affected.”
On that, Jaywork agreed, allowing that the ordinance change might be creating a “tempest in a teapot.”
“It’s not really a problem,” he said. “People are not rushing to add 50 people to their deeds.”
However, the majority of the council deemed it best on July 20 to institute some kind of limits on that non-resident voting power, adopting the new ordinance and its limit of eight non-resident owner-voters per property on a 6-1 vote, with Mulligan in opposition.
Absentee balloting procedures not yet clear
Finally, Jaywork said he was still awaiting word on the handling of the town’s absentee ballots, after changes were made under town code to adopt new voting regulations that fit with a newly revised Title 15 in state code regarding municipal elections.
Part-time resident Dan Costello said he was concerned that the town would not allow voters to pick up absentee ballots in person prior to four days before an election. Costello said nearby Rehoboth Beach planned to do so, but he did not see the procedure reflected in Bethany’s new voting regulations.
Indeed, the newly adopted town regulations mirror Title 15 in mandating the mailing of absentee ballots to those who request them four or more days prior to an election. Those who request them closer to the election are allowed to pick them up in person. All absentee ballots must be returned to the town prior to noon on the day before the election if they are to be counted.
Costello said he felt in-person pickup of the absentee ballots would make things much easier for would-be voters, particularly as time for the election came closer, and particularly for those who reside or visit during the election season. But Jaywork said his reading of Title 15 indicated that such was not allowed, despite any moves in Rehoboth Beach to allow the in-person pickups.
Jaywork said he had requested clarification on the issue from state legislators and election officials, and he promised to report the outcome of those inquiries to the town as soon as they were received.