Located along the Nanticoke River in Sussex County, Delaware, near its border with Maryland, Seaford is a scenic small town of about seven thousand. Thanks to the recent efforts of municipal officials and Republican lawmakers in the state’s house of representatives, it may also soon be the site of a radical right-wing experiment that cuts at the basic fabric of democracy.
Delaware is one among only three states that allows nonresidents to vote in local elections. And roughly sixty years ago, it altered its state code to allow municipalities with populations exceeding one thousand to establish “home rule charters” that, among other things, empower them to determine voting eligibility.
It all sounds innocuous enough. What, after all, could possibly be wrong with extending the franchise? Some cities in Delaware already allow nonresident property owners to vote in their elections. But under a new proposal backed by Seaford’s mayor and currently making its way through the state legislature, municipal voting rights would also be extended to nonresident owners of limited liability companies, corporations, and trusts.
In other words, businesses and corporate entities themselves would become eligible to vote.
“These provisions,” the bill’s text reads, “shall be construed in accordance with the principle of ‘one person/entity/one vote.’”
What that anodyne phraseology expresses is an essentially pre-democratic idea of governance. According to this logic, which would have been perfectly at home in many societies before the American and French revolutions, property rather than personhood is the preeminent source of political and social legitimacy. For his part, Seaford’s mayor, David Genshaw, has defended the idea on stakeholder grounds.
“These are the people we’re trying to attract to our community that we’re asking to invest, to hire,” he told a local TV network. “Why wouldn’t we want to give them a right to vote? I find it hard to believe, who wouldn’t want that to happen? These are folks that have fully invested in their community with the money, with their time, with their sweat. We want them to have a voice if they choose to take it.”
Officially, of course, corporate entities aren’t getting more voting power than individual citizens. Under the legislation, Seaford residents who also own businesses would not receive two votes. But nonresident business owners would, in effect, because they would also retain the right to cast a ballot wherever they live — a blatant violation of the principle “one person, one vote” and strongly favoring affluent people who own businesses.
The real problem, however, is the idea of extending voting rights to private entities in the first place. For one thing, the whole concept is wide open for fraud.
In one Newark referendum several years ago, a single local property manager voted some thirty-one times (once for every LLC he controlled), prompting its city council to ban the practice of artificial entities casting votes. Even if such cases of fraud could somehow be regulated away, the extension of voting rights to abstract entities at all would represent a Trojan horse for the final replacement of democracy by legally enshrined class rule.
Its potential implications are made especially vivid if we consider the case of Delaware itself. “The State of Delaware,” boasts the appropriately named corp.delaware.gov, “is a leading domicile for U.S. and international corporations. More than 1,000,000 business entities have made Delaware their legal home.”
Indeed, according to the public interest group Common Cause, there are currently more registered businesses in the state than there are actual people — meaning that, if scaled up statewide, corporate entities (or rather, those who own them) would collectively wield greater political clout than citizens.
Genshaw himself inadvertently gave the game away when defending the proposal to reporters: “I mean, Walmart is not going to participate in a local election. They could, legally, I suppose, once the charter change is made, but the intent from the start is to allow local people to vote who are already participating locally in other ways.”
America’s political system is already awash with organized money, and its democracy has already been hideously contorted by private interest groups that have successfully normalized the idea that money equals speech. The proposal currently being debated in Delaware, versions of which have already become law in a number of other towns, reflects the logical and dangerous end point of such a view: that property conveys special authority, and that those who own it have greater moral worth than their fellow citizens.