Scoppe: Richland legislators must reset election board

Associate EditorMarch 11, 2014 

RICHLAND County legislators are trying to make sure everyone knows about a Thursday deadline that they created for people to apply for membership on an election board that has no statutory authority to exist.

Meanwhile they’re ignoring a Saturday deadline set by law to fill out a voter registration board that does not currently exist but by law is supposed to. They’ve already blown off the deadline for filling an elections board that likewise does not currently exist but by law should.

Most likely, they’ll still be able to make the appointments to the non-existent but legally required boards after the deadlines pass. But that’s not a sure thing, which means that whenever they fill those boards, they will invite legal challenges from losers in the June primaries and, if this drags on long enough, the November general elections; the litigants will argue that the elections in Richland County were operated without legal basis. As opposed to merely in violation of election laws.

For the most part, sorting this mess out is a complicated matter, because Circuit Judge Thomas Cooper’s order from last year striking down the law that created the merged Richland County Board of Elections and Voter Registration did not technically apply to the Richland County Board of Elections and Voter Registration. It will, as soon as he gets a chance to deal with a new lawsuit that seeks to correct that oversight. But until that happens, the current, unconstitutional combined board can make the legal claim that only it has authority over elections and voter registration in the county.

Whenever Judge Cooper applies last year’s order to the unconstitutional merged board, the job of registering voters will revert to the old voter registration commission that existed before the merger, and the job of running elections will revert to the old election commission.

But unless new appointments are made, those commissions will be populated by the people who were serving on them when the unconstitutional law was passed in 2011 combining them. That’s a problem because most of the old commissioners stayed on, as either commissioners or employees, and they share culpability for the disaster that has been the new entity since at least November 2012, when it produced the most disastrous election in modern state history.

And this brings us to the one part of this problem that is very simple: Richland County legislators need to stop pretending that they can maintain the unconstitutional status quo, and start dealing with reality. They need to name a new slate of election commissioners and voter registration commissioners to the old boards — so those people will be ready to get to work the moment the court order is filed putting them back in charge. (Technically, the governor makes those appointments, but governors generally appoint the people recommended by local legislators.)

Senate President Pro Tem John Courson told me on Monday that he expects the delegation will get together in the next week or two to name commissioners to fill the vacancies on the old boards, and that’s good.

But simply filling vacancies is not sufficient. Even replacing all the holdover commissioners is not sufficient. Legislators need to change their approach to these appointments.

I’m not sure what they’ve been thinking about up until now, but filling the board with people who are interested in and capable of obeying the law and of making sure the elections are run according to law does not seem to have been on their minds.

The current board has displayed shocking disdain for our state’s open meetings law. It showed an astounding lack of professionalism in hiring the just-fired director, failing even to do basic vetting that would have uncovered potential problems with him and with its other two finalists for the position.

If the just-fired director is to be believed — and his claims are consistent with what we have witnessed — the board overstepped its legal authority by making decisions that were his alone to make and ignored employment laws that, for instance, prohibit employers from beginning a discussion about a potential hire by inquiring about his race. And all of that is in addition to his claim, also believable, that the board is more interested in operating a political patronage system than running elections.

Ultimately, the only way to truly fix the mess that is the Richland County election office is to fix the pending messes in election offices across the state, because the state constitution does not allow legislators to fix the structural problems in the way we do elections one county at a time. While they’re trying to convince their colleagues to do that, though, Richland legislators have to do what they can to patch the broken system we have.

That means, because the unconstitutional board retains a tenuous claim to authority, that those legislators need to fill the seat that is being vacated when one member’s term ends, and another that was vacated when the board fired its director and hired one of its own to run things. But the sooner they make it clear to the commissioners that their time is extremely limited, and their services are will no longer be needed, and get about the business of re-establishing the old boards that are required by law to run our elections, the better our chance of having legitimate elections in Richland County. For a change.

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

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