With Rehoboth Beach’s election less than a month away, city officials are under fire after a local attorney says they violated state law in denying three leaseholders the ability to register to vote.
City attorneys deny the charges.
In a letter to City Manager Sharon Lynn, Rehoboth attorney Gene Lawson said on July 11, three clients tried to register to vote and were denied because the city is enforcing a city code requirement saying they have to be leaseholders for six months. Lawson said his clients were told they could register for the 2018 election but not for this year.
“These electors are being improperly disenfranchised, and the decision to bar them from voting in this election must be reversed,” Lawson wrote.
He said state law mandates that the deadline for voter registration shall be no more than 30 days prior to any scheduled election. Lawson said state law does not provide an exception to the 30-day requirement for leaseholders, freeholders or anyone else.
Finally, Lawson said the city continues to purge voters from the rolls if they do not vote in two consecutive elections. Although that is a provision in the charter, Lawson said that is contrary to state law, which says voters cannot be removed as long as their permanent place of residence remains the same.
In a letter to Lawson, Daniel McAllister, attorney for the city, identified the three people who tried to register as Betty Mann-Beebe, Robert McVey and William Mann, who own a 12-year lease for a commercial property on Rehoboth Avenue. The lease was recorded July 11, McAllister said. Lawson’s letter is dated July 12.
He said the state law, which went into effect Jan. 1, applies only to durational residency.
“Delaware state law imposes no restriction whatsoever on a municipality’s ability to impose durational requirements in excess of 30 days on those voters who are eligible to vote only by virtue of owning or leasing property,” McAllister wrote.
He said the new state law does not eliminate voter eligibility requirements found in the city charter and that the charter says a voter must be a leaseholder for the six-month period immediately preceding the election, which will be held Saturday, Aug. 12.
Addressing Lawson’s argument about voters being removed from the rolls after not voting for two straight elections, McAllister said what Lawson cites only applies to towns that use the state’s voter registration system. Rehoboth maintains its own voter registration system, he said, and is only bound by the city charter.
Mann-Beebe did not wish to comment on the situation, although she acknowledged she was not allowed to vote this year.
Speaker of the House Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, said Lawson is half-right and half-wrong and that he understands his frustration.
The state law imposes a 30-day maximum wait for full-time residents to be able to vote. However, Schwartzkopf said, Rehoboth allows nonresident property owners to vote as well, which is conferred by the city and is not constitutionally protected.
In the case of nonresident property owners being allowed to vote, he said, “My understanding is the towns control who can vote.”
Schwartzkopf said Rehoboth should not have two different qualifications to be able to vote and should have one standard for all voters.
“This is something Rehoboth Beach has not done very well,” he said. “If you allow property owners to vote, you should standardize all the rules.”