The name Rehoboth Beach is never directly mentioned in House Bill 395, but the city’s mayor says the town is squarely in the sights of legislation that would prevent municipalities from enacting residency requirements for municipal elections.
At issue is a provision in Rehoboth’s voter law that states a voter who has owned property for at least six months is eligible to vote in a city election, even if the voter is not a permanent resident. Henlopen Acres and Bethany Beach, among other coastal towns, also have laws allowing nonresident property owners to vote. The new bill would allow a a resident or property owner for only 30 days to register to vote for a municipal election. Municipalities would no longer be allowed to impose residency or property-ownership requirements, effectively allowing anyone who has lived in any town for 30 days or less to vote.
If the bill passes this year, it could throw Rehoboth’s Saturday, Aug. 13 election into chaos. Mayor Sam Cooper said under current rules, the registration deadline has already passed, but if the bill becomes law, the registration period would open again until Thursday, July 14. He said the city would have to tighten up its registration requirements - the bill still allows municipalities to set voter eligibility requirements, other than the length of residency.
Cooper says the city was never consulted about the bill, which passed the House of Representatives June 16 with only two nay votes. He said the bill’s authors did not appear to take into account that the bill would allow almost anybody to vote in municipal elections.
The bill is awaiting a vote by the Senate and must be passed by Thursday, June 30.
Rehoboth was challenged twice in court last year over its current six-month residency requirement, which requires a voter be a resident for six months before being eligible to vote. The first challenge, filed by Rehoboth resident Jackie Nichols, was dismissed by the U.S. District Court of Delaware but is on appeal with the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia. The second, filed in Delaware Court of Chancery, saw the voting questions rejected but was remanded back to the Rehoboth Board of Adjustment to satisfy administrative remedies on zoning questions.
Cooper said the residency rule was put in place because Rehoboth’s law allows nonresident property owners to vote. He said the rule established a timeline to ensure people who do not own property were domiciled in Rehoboth and not just visiting temporarily.
He said the bill’s synopsis, which cites Supreme Court precedent that residency requirements are unconstitutional, is misleading and erroneous. Cooper said the precedent cited only applies to residents and does not extend to leaseholders or nonresident property owners. He said state law does not automatically extend nonresident property owners the right to vote.
Cooper said he is not opposed to changing the residency equirement if it were to specify that it is a 30-day residency requirement, but the bill does not say that. Ultimately, Cooper said the bill raises more questions than it answers.
Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, supports the measure, sponsored by Rep. Melanie George Smith, D-Bear/Newark, and Sen. Margaret Rose Smith, D-Wilmington East, because once somebody buys property in a municipality, that person should be allowed to vote. He said 30 days was a reasonable amount of time for someone to have lived in a town before registering.
Schwartzkopf said there are Rehoboth property owners right now who own houses in town but don’t spend any time there. He said he has not heard any negative feedback from the towns on the bill. “The right to vote is the right to vote,” he said. “You shouldn’t have to wait six months to qualify to vote. If I buy a house, I should have some say.”
Rep. Ron Gray, R-Selbyville, one of two representatives to vote against the bill, said one of the main points of the bill was uniformity, as the state deadline to register to vote in a state election is 30 days. However, Gray said he opposed the measure for two reasons. First, because it amounts to the state telling towns how to run their own elections. Second, the bill specifies that the 30 days is maximum; in theory, a town could have a voter register and vote on the same day. Gray said a day or a couple of days of residency is hardly enough time for someone to be an informed voter.
Sen. Ernie Lopez, R-Lewes, whose district includes Rehoboth, said he has questions he wants answered before the bill comes to a vote. While he has not indicated which direction he is leaning, Lopez said one of the questions he has is whether the bill is really needed. He said he has not heard any officials from his towns indicate that the bill is something they want.