Scoppe: Richland County election debacle brought to you by single-county laws

Associate EditorNovember 14, 2012 

— IT’S BAD ENOUGH that the part-time board that oversees Richland County’s election and voter registration agency has concluded that it can’t fire Lillian McBride for her Election Day — and night, and day after — debacle.

But if you read the law as strictly as Election Commission Chairwoman Liz Crum does — and the Columbia attorney frequently represents the state in election-law cases — I don’t see any way the local legislators who hired Ms. McBride have any authority to fire her either.

Add this to the list of sins of Richland County’s state legislators, who single-handedly wrote that law.

This latest blunder shouldn’t surprise anyone who pays close attention to the way our Legislature actually operates, as opposed to the way we learned in civics class. But to casual observers … well, this might be a good time to start tuning in.

The problem is single-county laws, which local legislators used to write in order to avoid having to create county governments. Eventually, they gave in and created county councils, and even amended the state constitution to outlaw nearly all single-county laws. Still, they kept passing those unconstitutional laws, and as long as no one files suit, the laws are valid.

I write a lot about single-county laws, and a lot of people roll their eyes, because it’s all very … precious. Pedantic even. But those laws don’t simply violate the state constitution. They don’t simply distract our state legislators from the job we elected them to do, which is writing state law. They don’t simply steal power from the voters, who elect county councils to handle county matters. Perhaps more important than any of that, those laws get passed without being fully vetted.

And we get Lillian McBride, poster child for this anachronistic way of running government.

Normal bills are assigned to committee, where professional staff suggest technical changes or raise questions that the authors might not have considered. They go through subcommittee hearings, where the public can speak, are debated in full committee and then are subject to debate on the floor, in both the House and the Senate.

Even with all that review, the Legislature still makes some embarrassing mistakes, like legalizing video gambling without most lawmakers realizing it, or inadvertently making it legal for 18-year-olds to have sex with 14-year-olds.

By contrast, if single-county bills are even seen by staff, it’s only because the authors asked for the review. The bills are not subject to public hearings and rarely go through the committee process or even receive the first word of debate on the House or Senate floor. Legislators from outside the affected county don’t meddle with other legislators’ local bills, lest others do likewise unto them. The bills can race through the Legislature in as little as five legislative days.

The bill that combined the independent elections and voter registration offices in Richland County took a bit longer than that, but only a bit.

Richland County’s four senators — Darrell Jackson, John Courson, John Scott and Joel Lourie — introduced a bill on March 15, 2011, to combine the election and voter registration agencies, as several other counties had done. Two weeks later, with no review, the Senate passed it on second reading, by a vote of 6-0, with 35 senators voting “present.” Sens. John Land and Phil Leventis joined the Richland legislators in voting for the bill, which is out of the ordinary but not unheard of since they voted with the local delegation.

The next week, Sen. Jackson proposed adding the section that increased the new agency’s budget by 50 percent over those of the two predecessor agencies (so much for economies of scale). That amendment, approved without debate, was the only change anyone even proposed to the bill as it was originally introduced.

The Senate passed the bill, and the following week, the House passed it 59-0, because rather than abstaining like their colleagues in the Senate, representatives generally vote the way the local delegation votes.

So just 15 legislative days after it was introduced, the bill went to the governor, who signed it, even though she normally, and correctly, vetoes single-county bills.

Combining the two agencies was a good idea; the way it was done was not. It makes no sense for state legislators to appoint the members of a county board, as this legislation required. What makes sense is for the state to run elections, but if we’re going to have county boards, they ought to be appointed by county councils.

The problems didn’t stop there. Local legislators also wrote into law that they, and not their new board, would hire the first director of the combined agency. We could speculate all day about why legislators wanted to make sure the merged agency was run by the person who had overseen voter registration for five or six years rather than the professional who had run the county’s elections successfully for four decades, but it’s clear that this was their priority. It’s also clear that this sort of shenanigans never would have occurred with a statewide bill.

Even more relevant is that, in making sure they got the director they wanted, legislators gave absolutely no consideration to what might happen if that person made an unmitigated disaster of our elections.

Which she did.

The Jackson-Courson-Scott-Lourie law allows the commission to hire and fire subsequent directors. But it does not clearly give anyone the authority to dismiss the legislators’ hand-picked director.

It’s true, as the gun lobby might tell us, that legislative shortcuts don’t make bad laws; legislators make bad laws. But legislative shortcuts make it a lot easier for legislators to make bad laws — and a lot more likely that they will do precisely that.

Which, in this case, they did.

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

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