THE RICHLAND County Election Commission has drawn the wrath of voters because it left tens of thousands of voters standing in line for hours, and forced countless others to give up without voting, in 2012. Then didn’t count all the absentee ballots in 2013.
That commission and most of its counterparts across the state have drawn the attention of the courts because they were created in defiance of the state’s constitutional ban on laws that affect only one county. One reason our constitution prohibits such laws is that they invite and involve state legislators meddling into the internal operations of agencies. The Richland County law that a Circuit Court declared unconstitutional last year gave them the power to hire the director of a newly merged agency, which they did for clearly political reasons and to clearly disastrous results.
If the voter anger hasn’t been enough to push legislators to fix a broken system — and it hasn’t — perhaps the prospect of the Supreme Court declaring all but nine county election offices unconstitutional will.
There are essentially three options:
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Turn control of all county election commissions over to the county councils, turn control of the commissions, and the elections, over to the secretary of state, or put the county commissions under control of the State Election Commission.
The first option would solve the constitutional problem — if it was done correctly, and several proposals to do that look to be just as unconstitutional as the current arrangement. But it would be unlikely to address the competency problem. And that’s a problem with much broader implications than most people realize.
Only 12 of the 46 state Senate districts and just 51 of 124 House districts are wholly contained within a single county. All seven U.S. House members represent multiple counties, as do all 16 solicitors, our two U.S. senators, the governor and the far-too-numerous state constitutional officers.
Although the law remains constant, different directors and election commissions can have different ideas about how to interpret and enforce it. And they certainly have different degrees of competence and professionalism. That means that when the Richland County election commission does a lousy job running an election, it affects the election results statewide, and particularly in neighboring counties that share legislative districts.
We mention the secretary of state option only because there’s a bill up for debate in the House Judiciary Committee this afternoon to accomplish that. That change would solve both the constitutional and the consistency problems, but holding elections is one of the very few functions of government that should not be under the control of 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 and cannot be removed except for cause.
Fortunately, the primary sponsor of the secretary of state bill, Rep. Alan Clemmons, and Richland Rep. James Smith are offering an amendment to transform this into the change we need: They would keep the State Election Commission in charge of elections and put the county offices under its control. This would solve both problems, without creating new ones.
We believe the state also should fund the election office, but that’s something that can be tackled later. Just getting state legislators out of the micro-management business, and treating the operations of elections as the statewide duty it is, and making our election law constitutional — well, that’s a huge step forward. The Judiciary Committee should jump at the opportunity to make those changes, as should the full House and Senate.