Scoppe: Big precincts, long lines and voting machine shortages: It’s all relative

Associate EditorDecember 16, 2012 

— MY FIRST inclination was to applaud Richland County legislators for thinking about maybe reconfiguring the county’s voting precincts, nearly two-thirds of which have more than the 1,500 voters that state law allows — nearly half of those with more than 1,000 extra voters, and one with nearly four times the legal limit.

But as with so very, very many things at the perilous intersection of legislative hegemony, executive authority and local self-rule, the news is only good in relative terms. Sort of like you’re much better off when you’ve only lost your job, as opposed to losing your job, your home and your family.

The fact that basic precinct maintenance has been so badly ignored for so long just underscores the problem with state legislators meddling in matters that are none of their business.

Managing precincts — making sure they are redrawn as needed to comply with applicable laws, deciding how to redraw them and where to set up polling places — are tasks that should be performed by the agency that runs elections. (And that should be a state agency, not 46 local agencies, but that’s a slightly different topic.) By professionals whose job it is to implement the laws that are passed by legislators — not by the legislators, who, except in parliamentary systems, are simply not equipped to administer laws.

At the risk of stating the obvious, a first principle of anyone in a decision-making position should be this: When you reserve unto yourself the authority to do a job, you are obliged to actually do it.

And really, whoever would have imagined that “county legislative delegation” was the designation for an official entity that has the power to implement state law, as opposed to a description of a bunch of legislators who happen to represent the same county? Only someone who understands the pathology of the S.C. legislator, who doesn’t trust anyone to do anything that he considers important or, heaven help us, politically sensitive.

Which brings us to the second interlocking problem that the too-big precincts highlights. The fact that we have a statutory limit on precinct sizes that was written in 1970, when we still used paper ballots, reminds us that state legislators are so busy with all their meddling that they simply don’t have time to attend to their fundamental duty: to keep our laws up to date so that government can function.

So, even though the only people who are empowered to comply with the law are also the only people who are empowered to change the law, they do neither, instead simply ignoring it until a crisis arrives.

And now that the crisis has arrived and our legislators are preparing to comply with the law, they will hand the bill for compliance to the Richland County Council, which has no control over anything involving elections, and whose ability to pay for services has been curtailed by the Legislature. With a statutory limit on how much the council can collect in property taxes — and other laws that require it to squander revenue from other taxes on frivolities rather than paying for necessities — it will have to either dip into its reserves, borrow money or underfund other services in order to pay for the legislative delegation’s decision to respond to its crisis by complying with an outdated law.

But of course the crisis had nothing to do with the size of the precincts. As the state’s district-drawing guru explained to The State’s Clif LeBlanc, some polling places are perfectly capable of accommodating 3,000 voters, while others would be too crowded with 300. In addition to the size of the building and the amount of parking, the key to polling-place management is having an adequate number of poll workers — and voting machines.

Thousands of people stood in line for three, four, even up to seven hours on Election Day — and we’ll never know how many gave up without voting — because some unnamed someone wrote the wrong numbers on a list, and as a result nearly half the county’s inadequate number of voting machines spent the day either sidelined at the polling places or sitting in a warehouse. And no one in the office whose primary duty it is to run elections thought to ask why. Neither the highest-paid elections director in the state nor her well-compensated staff thought it was worth listening to poll workers who complained well in advance that they needed more voting machines.

So now, because the legislative delegation’s hand-picked election director failed to utilize the resources the taxpayers had provided, the delegation is going to force the County Council to spend our tax money to comply with an outdated state law that hasn’t been updated in 42 years, because legislators are too busy meddling in local matters and surreptitiously running state agencies and naming roads for themselves and their patrons to worry with such trivialities as passing the laws that are necessary to allow the basic mechanics of government to be in proper working order.

Even relatively speaking, that’s pretty outrageous.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com.

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