Richland’s fiasco has SC lawmakers pushing to put state in charge of elections

Richland’s fiasco has lawmakers pushing for change

12/19/2012 12:00 AM

12/19/2012 7:40 AM

Dueling, partisan bills were filed Tuesday at the State House to change the way elections are run across South Carolina.

Dueling, partisan bills were filed Tuesday at the State House to change the way elections are run across South Carolina.

The proposals are the first statewide ripple effect from Richland County’s election meltdown that outraged thousands, disenfranchised uncounted would-be voters and held no one accountable six weeks after the fiasco.

Bills sponsored by Democrats call for stripping local election boards of their power and centralizing control in the State Election Commission. The state agency also would set statewide standards for qualifications of local election directors, mandate their training and generally transfer supervision away from all 46 counties.

“We’re trying to really do what should have been done a long time ago,” Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, said of the legislation he submitted. He described the thrust of the bill as an attempt to centralize and modernize state election laws. “It is absolutely where we need to head.”

The version proposed by Republican lawmakers is much more sweeping. It would dissolve the State Election Commission and transfer statewide control to a new elections division in the secretary of state’s office.

The elected secretary would select the head of the division. The governor would appoint local voter registration boards in the seven counties that still have separate registration and elections boards.

“The overall gist is that we are looking for more uniformity and accountability,” said Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Richland, one of the sponsors along with Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Richland, who won Nov. 6 in a tight race. Ballentine said that eliminating the State Election Commission improves the process because “fewer chiefs” would oversee elections.

The bill, written largely by Alan Clemmons, R-Horry, is a 60-page overhaul that would determine candidate nominations, candidate certifications and allow the elections division to decertify any political party that does not, among other things, organize at the precinct level, hold statewide conventions and regularly offer certified candidates for office.

Clemmons, a key sponsor of the state’s disputed Voter ID law, could not be reached Tuesday.

His bill would establish statewide standards for state and local party conventions.

Further, the proposal would empower the state elections director, appointed by the elected secretary of state, to maintain a current list of registered voters and to purge people who no longer qualify to cast ballots. Every clerk of a statewide court and every magistrate would have to report yearly the names and Social Security numbers of anyone disqualified from voting because they were convicted of a felony or crimes involving election laws.

If the Legislature does not keep precincts at the state limit of 1,500 registered voters, the election division would notify local election boards anytime a precinct exceeds that amount. Precincts would have to be divided alphabetically by voter names once they exceed 750 registered voters. Each division would have its own elections manager, facilities and polling places.

Smith said passage of proposals from him and Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, won’t be easy. “It’s going to be real tough because each county has its own system, its own fiefdom.”

Ballentine also referred to county boards as fiefdoms.

The 10-page Smith bill and Sheheen’s companion version in the Senate would leave local boards with only the responsibility of hearing election protests.

The State Election Commission would assume its new powers as soon as the bill is signed into law, and the State Election Commission would write regulations to enforce the law within the first 12 months.

The Democrats’ plan also would force seven counties that now have separate elections and voter registration boards to combine them. Those counties include Cherokee, Dillon, Greenville, Greenwood, Horry, Spartanburg and Williamsburg.

The Smith-Sheheen bills would mandate that local election boards meet at least four times per year. Under current law, they set their own schedules.

Smith said his bill is still being refined. “This is the first draft,” he said.

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