November 18, 2012

Editorial: State, not county boards, should run SC elections

WE DON’T have one set of election laws for Richland County and another for Lexington County and another still for Abbeville or Allendale or Greenville county.

WE DON’T have one set of election laws for Richland County and another for Lexington County and another still for Abbeville or Allendale or Greenville county.

And for good reason. Once you get past the county council, sheriff and a few (but too many) county officers, we don’t have separate elected officials for each county. Unlike the federal government, which is a creation of the states, our state is not a creation of the counties, but vice versa.

Only 12 of the 46 state Senate districts — and just two of the seven that contain parts of Richland and Lexington counties — are wholly contained within a single county. All seven U.S. House members represent multiple counties, as do all 16 solicitors, 51 of the 124 S.C. House members, our two U.S. senators, the governor and the far- too-numerous state constitutional officers.

All of which means that voters have just as much stake in how well the elections are conducted in their neighboring county as in their own.

Yet we have 46 independent, county-based commissions overseeing 46 independent, county-based election agencies. Some of them do a good job. Some, as we saw this month in Richland County, not so much.

Layered atop of all these county agencies is the State Election Commission, which ought to be in charge of state elections but which can do only as good a job as those 46 county offices over which it has absolutely no control.

This makes absolutely no sense.

Few entities or individuals in this state are more persistent advocates for local government autonomy than this editorial board. We believe that counties and cities should have broad authority to enforce land-use rules and to set tax rates and spend money as they see fit, and that the voters in those counties and cities — not state legislators — should decide whether those decisions or wise or foolish.

But just as some matters are more appropriately handled by the federal than the state government (foreign policy, for example), some matters are more appropriately handled by the state than local government. Elections are among them.

The Legislature sort of understands this — in a 19th century kind of way. The county election commissions aren’t appointed by the county councils. Instead, as many people have learned since Richland County legislators’ hand-picked election director so throughly botched the Nov. 6 election, they are appointed by the legislators who represent all or part of each county.

In fact, the only references to county councils in the laws that establish the county election offices are mandates that they fund the agencies and commissions over which they have no control. Which makes this an even worse way of doing things.

If we’re going to have 46 separate election agencies, and if the counties have to fund them, the counties should control them. But we shouldn’t have 46 separate election agencies, and the counties shouldn’t fund them.

Elections should be run by the State Election Commission and paid for by the state. The state would need to maintain offices in most if not all counties to conduct the elections — just as DHEC and the Department of Social Services (which used to include 46 independent county offices) maintain offices across the state. But as with those other agencies today, the local election offices should be part of the State Election Commission.

Because South Carolina isn’t a collection of 46 independent counties; it’s a single state.

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