The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to take up legislation this afternoon to save our elections in the wake of Richland County’s Great Election Debacle of 2012.
Unfortunately it does so in the traditional South Carolina way: by keeping legislators in charge. And as we were reminded yet again on Monday, having county election commissions controlled by legislators doesn’t always work out particularly well.
As you might recall, Circuit Court Judge Thomas Cooper ruled in August that the merger of Richland County’s election and voter registration commissions (the action that led to the debacle) was part of an unconstitutional single-county law. And the way he wrote the order set the stage for the Supreme Court to not only uphold it but also to invalidate nearly all of the counties’ election systems.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin’s bill, up for debate this afternoon, fixes the constitutional problem by reconstituting all 46 county commissions. Local legislative delegations still would decide who sits on those boards, but in a way that is merely offensive to home rule, not unconstitutional.
Meantime, Richland Reps. Jams Smith, Mia McLeod and Beth Bernstein have a bill up for consideration this afternoon in the House Judiciary Committee that sort of puts the State Election Commission in the loop for supervising the county election directors, without putting the state agency completely in charge. It also attempts to solve the constitutional problem with the Richland Election Commission, but I don’t think it succeeds.
There are ways to solve the constitutional problem and the governmental problem at the same time. A least-common-denominator solution is to let county councils appoint election commissioners, since they’re expected to fund the commissions.
An even better solution — indeed, the only solution that is likely to overcome the problem of having state elections run by local officials whose competence and devotion to the law varies widely from county to county — is to put the State Election Commission in charge of the county offices. Which would be a really good thing for someone to propose a this afternoon’s Senate meeting.