Common Cause Delaware Beats Back Corporation Voting Bill

Claire Snyder-Hall sits down for an interview with Corporate Crime Reporter about Seaford's corporate voting bill.

This article originally appeared in the Corporate Crime Reporter‘s print edition on July 17, 2023.

Earlier this year, Claire Snyder-Hall was looking through the legislation being introduced in the Delaware General Assembly.

Claire Snyder-Hall
Common Cause Delaware

And she came across a bill that would allow corporations to vote in the town of Seaford.

Not just voting for tax referendums. But voting for candidates.

If the bill passed, McDonald’s and Auto Zone and Verizon would have the full right to vote.

Snyder-Hall is the executive director of Common Cause Delaware.

“I just took a peek at this charter change bill coming out of Seaford,” Snyder-Hall told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last month. “And I was so alarmed when I saw that they were going to give artificial entities full voting rights – the full voting rights that a human being has.”

“Then I realized that three Delaware municipalities already allow corporations to fully vote – Fenwick Island, Henlopen Acres and Dagsboro. They allow artificial entities to have the same voting rights as human beings. And then there are another fourteen that allow corporations to vote in some form, like for tax referendums. I was pretty shocked. And so I started raising the alarm about it as soon as I saw that.”

The bill eventually passed the House, but failed in the Senate.

“We are elated that this bill did not pass because we cannot allow corporations and businesses to have voting rights equal to those of real people. While we’re relieved that the Senate rejected this bill, it is worrisome that it got this far,” said Snyder-Hall. “Delaware is infamous for our business-friendly courts and laws, but this is a bridge too far. We must remain vigilant and protect the rights of human voters.”

Had you not gotten national publicity, it wouldn’t have been stopped. How did you get the national publicity?

“I got on the horn with all of my contacts in the legislature who I knew would be outraged by it. And I put out press releases. And it got picked up by national organizations. And it’s so outrageous that it spread like wildfire. And I ended up doing interviews with CNN, CBS, Bloomberg and other national news outlets. It became a big deal nationally.”

“People in the legislature didn’t want to go on record for having to vote for corporate voting rights.”

Corporations already have full voting rights in Fenwick Island, Henlopen Acres and Dagsboro?

“Yes they have. But Seaford is much larger. It’s the biggest city in Sussex County. It has 8,000 people.”

For each one of these towns, they have to go to the legislature to get it approved.

“It’s part of the Delaware code that if a municipality wants to change its charter, they have to get approval from the legislature. In the past, it has been a rubber stamp. People pushing this in Seaford were a little taken aback that they were being questioned about this.”

“But the fact of the matter is that the Delaware General Assembly does have to approve charter changes.”

When a corporation goes to vote, how does it work?

“The corporation designates somebody to go down and vote on its behalf. They draw up power of attorney paperwork and they go down and file that they are going to be the one to vote.”

Do corporations have voting cards?

“I’m not sure they have voting cards. But many of the townships compile lists of people. I’m not sure if they give out cards or not.”

If the designated person is voting for the corporation and also lives in the town, they would go in, vote on behalf of the corporation, then vote on behalf of themselves?

“No. If you are a business owner and live in Seaford, you would only get to vote once.”

The people pushing this in Seaford, what was their argument for this bill?

“The Mayor, who is behind this bill, is trying to be more business friendly. They see it as a way of attracting businesses. The claim is that it’s more business friendly.”

How many businesses would be eligible to vote if it passes the legislature?

“Right now, 234 businesses would be allowed to vote. You have to remember too that only 340 residents voted in the last election. You have 340 human beings voting and potentially 234 artificial entities voting. Obviously, it’s going to have a huge impact on decisions being made in Seaford.”

I thought Seaford had a population of 8,000?

“It’s a very low turnout.”

Why is that?

“I don’t know specifically. But I would speculate that people don’t vote because they feel as if it doesn’t make a difference. Maybe they feel there is no good choice – tweedledum and tweedledee. It doesn’t really matter. Also, municipal elections are not held at the same time as statewide or national elections. So if you are not paying attention, you can easily overlook it.”

Would this bill allow corporations to vote in other than municipal elections?

“No, not this particular bill. But I’m worried that this bill is going to be a blueprint for future attempts and at higher levels to allow corporations to vote.”

“Citizen United gave corporations free speech rights. And Mitt Romney said famously – corporations are people too, my friend. It’s the next logical step. Although it’s coming out of a small unknown town in Delaware, it could be a law that becomes a blueprint for other places around the country. And then if it gets passed in Delaware, the next step would be to try to get corporations to get the right to vote in statewide elections and eventually national elections. It’s a dystopic future vision.”

The constitutional principle is one person one vote. Can’t this be challenged in the courts?

“If it got to the point where it was affecting higher levels of government, we might challenge it in court.”

What is the status of the bill in Delaware?

“The Speaker of the House had promised the bill’s sponsor that he would get it through. And when the Democratic Caucus revolted, they didn’t have the votes to pass it. And then the Republicans said they were not going to pass the bonds bill that funds the state. So they held everyone hostage until they were able to persuade enough Democrats to vote for the bill.”

“It then went over to the Senate, and it never got a vote. People knew that it wasn’t going to make it through the Senate, and that’s why they voted for it in the House. They knew it wasn’t going to pass the Senate.”

“However, the bill is still in the Senate and it could be brought up for a vote in 2024. I don’t necessarily think that’s going to happen. But it could happen.”

Both Houses are controlled by Democrats. Why did it pass the House and not the Senate?

“It wasn’t going to pass the House. But the Republicans were able to hold everyone hostage. And some of the Democrats in the House are more conservative – quasi Republicans. But there is also an active progressive contingent. They refused to vote for it. But in the end it came down to – are we going to vote against this Seaford bill, or are we not going to have money to fund the senior center in our town and ambulances and fire departments?”

“In the Senate, the Democrats are more progressive. Delaware is an interesting place to live.”

You made this a national issue. CBS News ran a report on it. You ran for state Senate in 2014 and lost. If you ran again or if someone else ran on this or other corporate power issues in Delaware could you win on it?

“I’m not sure. If it becomes more of a statewide issue, maybe. There is a bill that has been filed that would ban corporate voting in the whole state of Delaware. That could be a good bill to run on. Somebody could run against corporate voting. I was shocked how much national attention the issue got. I was doing interviews with press organizations all over the country on this.”

Was this a corporate lobbying group pushing for voting in Seaford? Or was it just the city council and mayor?

“When I saw the bill, my very first thought was – it has to be the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). That’s the Koch Brothers funded organization pushing corporate legislation in state legislatures throughout the country. I reached out to my national Common Cause team. And we weren’t able to find any evidence that this was being pushed by ALEC or a national organization.”

“We are the incorporation capital. And people are corporate oriented here. So it might have just been bubbling up from the mayor and others.”

[For the complete q/a format Interview with Claire Snyder-Hall, 23 Corporate Crime Reporter 29(12), July 17, 2023, print edition only.]