Scoppe: Remember those questions on the SC primary ballots? Don’t

Associate EditorJuly 15, 2014 

— LAST MONTH, 3.5 percent of S.C. voters said they wanted to legalize gambling to pay for road improvements; 3 percent said the Legislature should legalize the medical use of marijuana.

That almost makes it sound impressive that 9 percent endorsed eliminating the state income tax, and 8 percent wanted lawmakers to declare fetuses to be people, effectively banning abortion.

Almost, but not really.

If there’s a message that legitimately could be taken from the June 10 primary elections, it would have to be that S.C. voters do not support any of those ideas.

Of course, that’s not what party apparatchiks will tell you. And that’s why we need to talk about those questions, which littered the Republican and Democratic primary ballots.

Political party officials will dress those numbers up to look like something they aren’t: meaningful. They’ll tell anyone who will listen that upwards of 80 percent of voters support casino-funded roads and demand an end to income taxes and abortion.

Indeed, House Democratic Leader Todd Rutherford sent out a news release earlier this month touting that 80 percent figure in announcing that he would file legislation to authorize casinos in Myrtle Beach in order to pay for roads because “the people support this.”

The problem is that too many of our mathematically challenged legislators believe it’s meaningful that 99,667 of our state’s 2,836,470 registered voters support Mr. Rutherford’s casinos-for-roads plan. The problem is that too many of our mathematically challenged legislators feel duty-bound to act as though those and the other results are not only meaningful but actually represent some sort of mandate from the voters. Marching orders, as it were.

Even if there were something impressive or meaningful about the numbers, we all ought to be offended by this idea that the results of a taxpayer-funded public opinion poll constitute some sort of voter mandate, as it flies in the face of the central principle of representative democracy. Which is: that we elect people whose judgment we trust, and then we rely on them to study the issues, participate in the debate and vote in the way they think best, rather than sticking their finger in the wind and relying on what voters who haven’t studied the issues or listened to a debate have to say about them when they are asked leading questions in biased telephone or online polls. Or at the polling place.

To their credit, at least 10,000 Republican voters refused to answer that party’s questions. To their discredit, 10,000 more Democrats answered that party’s questions than voted in the race for education superintendent, their most important and most voted-in primary.

It was bad enough for political party officials to be able to sully the ballots with these “advisory referendums” back when they paid for and ran the primaries. The Republicans’ 1994 referendum on the Confederate flag — deliberately written in a way to preclude the very smart compromise that was in the works — sabotaged the very smart compromise that was in the works. It destroyed our ability to deal with that divisive issue for six years, because party officials were able to frighten Republican legislators into believing that they had received a mandate from voters against action.

It is not our elected officials who determine what, if any, questions to include on the primary ballots. Those decisions are made by political party officials. And boxing in elected officials, making them believe that they are touching the third rail of politics if they dare to pursue policies that seem to conflict with the winning answer — or if they fail to take official actions in support of the winning answer — is one of two goals of the faux referendums.

The other is to entice more people to the polls, which, if at all successful, is likely to skew the legitimate election results in a bad away. Think about it: People for whom selecting our elected officials is not reason sufficient to vote, people who must be “enticed” to the polls by a referendum that has no force of law, probably don’t know anything about the candidates, and are very likely to make bad choices. Bad choices that the rest of us have to live with.

Since the state appropriately took over operation and funding the primaries, there has ceased to be even a theoretical justification for continuing to let political operatives twist this most sacred of tools of representative democracy for their own selfish, and anti-republican, purposes.

One of my regrets from the run-up to the primaries was that there was so much else to write about that I didn’t get a chance to write an editorial or column urging voters to just say no to those questions. All of the questions, whichever primary they voted in. Not because the ideas they espoused were bad ideas — although they were — but because the only way we’ll ever get these things off of our ballots is by giving the political string-pullers the answers they do not want.

Unfortunately, chances are good that we’ll have the opportunity to try that experiment in the next round of state political primaries, two years from now.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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