Scoppe: Party error

Associate EditorAugust 5, 2012 

STATE OFFICIALS are largely to blame for the debacle that knocked 250 candidates off this year’s primary and general election ballots: legislators for not thinking through the implications of a perfectly reasonable change in state law, and the State Election and Ethics commissions for telling parties and candidates to do what the law clearly should have required rather than what it actually does require.

But don’t blame the government for the fact that more than a dozen candidates have been or likely will be disqualified after winning the primaries, and that their defeated foes will be on the November ballot instead. (And who knows how many will be in this situation by the time the parties certify their candidates on Aug. 15?)

The fault for the latest chapter in the never-ending election fiasco of 2012 falls squarely on the shoulders of county party officials who refused to remove candidates from the ballot even though they had not complied with state law in filing for office.

Those party officials — almost all Republicans — made deliberate decisions to ignore what were by then clear orders from the state Supreme Court, which went so far as to pointedly warn that party officials who continued to ignore it did so “at their own peril.”

Perhaps party officials were just careless. Perhaps they ignored the court because its orders conflicted with their political goals. Either possibility is a problem, and both likely were at play.

After all, party officials don’t work for us. They certainly aren’t accountable to us. They’re not even accountable to their parties. They’re accountable to — that is, can be removed by — that small fragment of the population who go to precinct meetings and get elected to party positions and involve themselves in the mechanics of party operations. And since they’re volunteers, their livelihood wouldn’t be at stake if they were removed for making egregious mistakes.

These are not the sort of people who should be empowered to administer state laws.

Yes, I understand the argument for their role: The party nominees represent the parties, and so of course the parties should control the process. But that boat sailed two decades ago, when the Republican and Democratic parties and the Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature decided (correctly) that we needed professionally run elections, which didn’t have the taint of corruption and just plain sloppiness that our party-run primaries had. They decided that our elections should be handled by neutral professionals, not volunteers with a vested interest in the outcome. And so the Legislature put state and local election officials in charge of running the primaries.

What it didn’t do was turn the filing process over to election officials. So we retained a patchwork system, of candidates making appointments to show up at a local fast-food restaurant to hand over paperwork to people who might be from a competing faction in the party and, even if they aren’t, who might or might not be checking to make sure their paperwork is in order. It’s no coincidence that the disqualified candidates weren’t spread evenly across the state, but were clustered in a few counties.

We never should have gotten to this point. Now that we’re here, we can no longer claim that we don’t realize it’s a problem.

Lawmakers say they are committed to eliminating the separate filing requirements for incumbents and challengers and the redundant laws that require challengers to file economic-interest statements both online and in person with filing officials — though they somehow managed to get out of town this year without doing either.

Those are good changes to make, although not essential; anyone who gets tripped up again by the redundant laws, after all that we’ve been through this year, really is too stupid to run for office. But the most important thing for the Legislature to do is to take candidate filing duties away from the political parties and give them to election officials.

Clearly, state officials can mess things up. We wouldn’t have had this mess if the Ethics and Elections commissions hadn’t decided that they needed to reconcile what they considered “conflicting statutes” (in fact, as the court noted, the statutes do not conflict; they are redundant, but not conflicting). And if the Ethics Commission hadn’t compounded the error by failing to modify its filing instructions to take that “correction” into account.

But there is every reason in the world to believe that those were honest mistakes, made by officials who were acting in good faith. Not by people who care who runs and who doesn’t or who wins and who doesn’t.

More importantly, election workers have an incentive to at least try to follow the law; after all, it’s their job to do that, and most state employees realize that they can get fired if they deliberately do their jobs badly. Well, unless they’re legislators.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571.

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