Scoppe: Richland election system was broken long before fiascos of 2012, 2013

Associate EditorDecember 4, 2013 

Cindi Scoppe

— I’M WRITING this before the votes are counted — or even all cast — in the referendum on changing Columbia’s form of government, and I’m assuming the Richland County Voter Registration and Election Commission didn’t make any major errors this time, as it did last month, and last year.

I’m not making this assumption because I have faith in the commission — far from it. Rather, I’m making this assumption because when it comes to identifying the problem and the necessary solution, that really doesn’t matter.

What the Richland County Election Commission’s repeated failures do is help us all understand that the Richland County election system is broken. It was broken long before election officials failed to count 1,114 of the 29,000 votes in the November bond referendum for the library and at least 632 of the 15,000 in the Columbia City Council election. It was broken long before the Disaster of 2012, when the elections director ignored warnings and failed to deploy all of the county’s voting machines and failed to make sure the ones she did deploy were actually working, leaving some voters standing in line for two, four, six, eight hours — and causing untold others to give up without voting.

Most people didn’t realize the system was broken. But it was.

An election system is broken when we have state legislators appointing members of a county election commission and handing the county the bill for the commission’s work. An election system is broken when the state legislators who give themselves the power to appoint commissioners give neither themselves nor anyone else power to remove those commissioners. Even if they’re incompetent, which these seem to be. Even if their favorite pastime is doing the public’s business in secret, which it seems to be.

The most obvious, verifiable problem with the county’s election system is that it violates the state constitution. In fact, the unelected, unaccountable election commission chairman, and all of his colleagues, and perhaps even the new director they hired without properly vetting, likely would be out of jobs if not for the fact that local legislators appealed the August ruling by Circuit Judge Thomas Cooper declaring the law that created the current version of the commission unconstitutional. That appeal resulted in an automatic stay until it can be heard by the state Supreme Court, whose members will get a really good laugh over the local legislators’ protestations.

The system is unconstitutional because the state constitution prohibits passing laws that apply to just one county, and this one affects only Richland County. In that sense, it’s not unlike the election apparatuses in most if not all of the counties, each of which was passed by those legislators who represent all or part of the county in question, while the rest of the legislators sat on their hands, some looking away sheepishly.

All of these county-legislative-delegation-created and county-legislative-delegation-controlled election mechanisms are unwise because they invite and involve state legislators meddling into the internal operations of agencies — in the case of Richland County, giving them the power to hire the director of the new agency, which they did for clearly political reasons and to clearly disastrous results.

They are unwise because writing and passing laws in smoky backrooms and inviting the overwhelming majority of legislators to keep their noses out of such matters results in poorly thought-through laws. Like the one that gave us the Richland County Voter Registration and Election Commission.

If we’re going to have 46 separate election agencies, and if the counties have to fund them, the counties should control them. But we shouldn’t have 46 separate election agencies, and the counties shouldn’t fund them, because elections are not, for the most part, single-county affairs.

Only 12 of the 46 state Senate districts — and just two of the seven that contain parts of Richland and Lexington counties — are wholly contained within a single county. All seven U.S. House members represent multiple counties, as do all 16 solicitors, 51 of the 124 S.C. House members, our two U.S. senators, the governor and the far-too-numerous state constitutional officers. Even Columbia city elections involve voters in both Richland and Lexington counties.

All of which means that voters have just as much stake in how well the elections are conducted in their neighboring county as in their own. They have a stake in the voting machines being kept to the same operating standards and supplied in the same ratio of voters-to-machine and votes being counted the same way regardless of where they’re cast. They have a stake in appeals being heard under the same standards regardless of where the dispute occurred.

Running our state’s elections — and paying for them — should be the responsibility of a state agency. The state would need to maintain offices in most if not all counties to conduct the elections — just as DHEC and the Department of Social Services maintain offices across the state. But as with those other agencies, the local election offices should be staffed by professionals who are answerable and accountable to a state agency, not to local legislators.

And since elections are so sensitive, this is one of the very, very few functions of government that should not be controlled by an elected official. That’s why the State Election Commission is run by a director who reports to a part-time board, whose members are appointed for fixed terms by the governor and cannot be removed except for cause.

This is a change we needed to make even if the Richland County Election Commission hadn’t failed to count 1,114 votes in last month’s election, and even if it hadn’t disenfranchised countless thousands in the 2012 election. Those spectacular displays of incompetency simply make the need for the change more glaringly obvious.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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