THE PROBLEM with combining the Richland County elections and voter registration commissions wasn’t the idea: There’s no good reason to have two separate agencies handling such interrelated functions.
The problem — the reason the merger led to one of the biggest election fiascos in the state’s modern history, the reason a Circuit Court judge has declared the law that combined the agencies unconstitutional — was the way our legislators chose to accomplish it.
They accomplished it through a law that applied only to Richland County, which our state constitution prohibits in almost all cases. And one reason our constitution prohibits such laws is that they invite and involve state legislators meddling into the internal operations of agencies — in this case, giving them the power to hire the director of the new agency, which they did for clearly political reasons and to clearly disastrous results.
So we’re delighted that Senate President Pro Tempore John Courson has pledged to try again to pass a law to at least provide a mechanism for getting legislative delegations out of the business of overseeing county election offices. His proposal would allow, though not require, each county’s legislative delegation to turn control of the county elections and voter registration offices over to the county council; the county council then could deicide to combine the offices, appoint commissioners to oversee elections and make other changes.
That would be a big improvement over our current system, because it would allow those counties that have not merged elections and voter registration offices to do so (and lift the legal cloud from those that have done so under constitutionally suspect circumstances). More importantly, it would get legislators out of the business of micromanaging the operation of government agencies — which is bad enough when the entire Legislature does it on the state level, and worse when small groups of legislators do it on the local level — and do it in a way that doesn’t violate our constitution. It also makes sense to put county councils in charge of operations that they have to pay for.
But the improvement is relative: There’s nothing sensible about having 46 independent agencies running South Carolina’s elections — 47, actually, when you include the State Election Commission. Although county elections and most city elections are confined to a single county, most elections cross county lines. It defies logic that they would be run by county agencies.
Running our state’s elections — and paying for them — should be the responsibility of a state agency, which operates county offices staffed by professionals who work for it, not for local legislators. And given the sensitive nature of elections, this is one of the 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.
Unlike the Richland County election commission — and, less dramatically so, other county election agencies — the State Election Commission has a long history of political independence and professionalism; it’s time it ran our elections.