August 4, 2014

Editorial: Put simple explanations of questions on SC ballots

A STATE PANEL will meet on Wednesday to decide whether it needs to write explanations for the two constitutional amendments that are to appear on the November ballot. The short answer is yes.

A STATE PANEL will meet on Wednesday to decide whether it needs to write explanations for the two constitutional amendments that are to appear on the November ballot. The short answer is yes.

Even though the proposed changes are fairly straightforward, they’re written in the sort of legalese that a lot of people have a difficult time wading through.

The important question asks voters to end South Carolina’s status as the only government in the free world that chooses the head of its military by plebiscite. The single-sentence question runs 167 words, which is fairly typical. That’s why state law allows the attorney general, election director and director of the bill-writing Legislative Council to write explanations to appear on the ballot alongside the questions themselves.

Unfortunately, those explanations, written by people who are quite accustomed to the legalese, sometimes are just as complicated as the questions themselves.

Here’s a 46-word explanation for that first question; we’re sure it’s not perfect, but it uses the sort of simple sentence structure that the commission ought to aim for: “The adjutant general is currently elected by voters. A ‘yes’ vote would allow the governor to appoint the adjutant general, with Senate approval. The Legislature has passed a law establishing minimum qualifications, and spelling out the conditions for removing the adjutant general before his four-year term ends; the Legislature would be free to change that law.”

The other question allows charities to hold raffles, under rules spelled out by the Legislature. It’s probably a little less convoluted than the adjutant general question, but it could stand a simple explanation as well.

Unfortunately too, there’s no such help for Lexington County’s local referendum asking voters to increase the sales tax by a penny on the dollar to pay for infrastructure projects. The law that the County Council used to call this referendum requires every project to be listed on the ballot, along with its cost and a brief explanation; since the county chose to include 93 projects, election officials expect the ballot to run as much as 20 pages. To call that ridiculous insults the word ridiculous.

As long as the Legislature is going to encourage local governments to keep raising the sales tax — often requiring them to use the money for wants rather than needs — it ought to allow a shorter explanation for such packages. Better still, the Legislature ought to stop encouraging local governments to raise the sales tax, which already is higher than it ought to be.

Much more than a high property tax or even income tax — neither of which South Carolina has, when compared to other states — a high sales tax has a direct negative effect on our economy, driving shoppers across state lines and onto the internet, where they often don’t pay sales tax. (That’s illegal, by the way, but it’s practically impossible to catch people who don’t pay that tax, so most people don’t.)

Instead of encouraging local governments to raise the tax that already is too high, the Legislature should remove the limitations it has placed on local officials’ ability to raise taxes as they see fit. If voters don’t like their elected officials’ decisions, they can take care of that.

Meantime, we would encourage voters to review all of the ballot questions well before they go to the polls, and to be prepared to vote without wading through all the explanations. Otherwise, at least in Lexington County, it’s going to be a long and miserable day at the polls.

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