WE TAKE IT for granted: In order to be elected, your name has to be on the ballot, and someone has to vote for you.
That’s how it works when people run for president, for the Congress, for governor, for the Legislature, for county councils — even for those offices that it’s just crazy to have to elect, like state agriculture commissioner and county clerk of court.
That’s how it works everywhere in our state, in fact, except in towns and cities. There, many candidates are declared the winner without ever getting a single vote.
Under an almost-certainly unconstitutional state law passed in 2003, municipal elections are canceled and the one candidate declared elected when only one person files for a council seat and no write-in candidates make themselves known within two weeks after filing closes.
The law started out as a way to save money when only one person files to finish an unexpired term in a special election. But someone got the idea that since so many municipal elections are uncontested, cities could save some money if those elections also were called off. It’s an idea that strips voters of even the illusion of having any say in who governs them — and renders last-minute write-in campaigns impossible (that’s the constitutional problem).
It would be bad enough to leave it up to the city or town to decide whether to call off the election, as a lot of people believe happens. But this being South Carolina, state law actually prohibits those elections. If election officials have to open the polls anyway — say, when there’s a contested citywide race — and the ballots have already been printed, election officials are prohibited from counting any write-in votes.
Hundreds of people have been “elected” without their names appearing on a ballot since the law went into effect. They’re usually council members in our smallest towns; but in 2015, Greenville Mayor Knox White was re-elected without benefit of election.
After I wrote about Arcadia Lakes’ decision to hold an election in 2015 in violation of this law, Kershaw Rep. Laurie Funderburk introduced a bill to require municipal elections even when only one candidate files. The House passed it, the Senate amended it to let municipalities decide whether to call off elections, and the bill died when the House and Senate ran out of time to reach a compromise.
Rep. Funderburk brought back her bill this year, the House passed it last month, and it’s on the agenda of a Senate subcommittee Wednesday morning. ((UPDATE: The meeting was cancelled so the Senate could continue its roads debate Wednesday morning; maybe next week.)) But the prospects aren’t good, because the House added an amendment by Rep. Chip Huggins, which moves all municipal elections to the regular November Election Day.
And suddenly local officials are up in arms against the bill, H.3150, for reasons that are legitimate and reasons that are not.
Current law allows cities to hold their elections whenever they choose; they could probably hold them on Christmas. They don’t do that, but many manage to schedule them in the middle of vacation season, when people have other things on their minds and the only people who vote are the council members’ supporters, who get lots of helpful reminders. In other words, it’s a system that’s rigged for incumbency protection — as if we didn’t have enough of that with standard election dates. That’s why reasonable people want to set a regular election date for municipal elections.
But there’s a legitimate reason to separate municipal elections from the elections for the Congress, the president, the governor and the Legislature: They tend to be about delivery of services — your garbage pickup, police response time, zoning decisions, incentives your city council is giving out to attract a certain type of development — which doesn’t usually break along partisan lines. Mix them in with the hyper-partisanship of a gubernatorial or presidential election, and those bread-and-butter issues get ignored. People voting Republican will vote for the local candidates they assume — often without any cause — are Republicans; and those voting Democrat will vote for the local candidates they assume — also without any cause — are Democrats.
Several years back, the State Election Commission came up with a great fix: It started urging municipal officials to hold their elections on the first Tuesday in November — in odd years. That way we’re voting at the time of year we’re used to, but we’re separating the non-partisan, service-delivery elections from the hyper-partisan elections that are driven by the cable news channels we watch and our uninformed, often-dishonest “friends” on Facebook.
Rep. Funderburk is trying to remove Mr. Huggins’ amendment from her bill, and I hope she succeeds, because it will probably die otherwise. But if she does succeed, and the House won’t accept that, the perfect fallback would be to convert the Election Commission’s recommendation into state law. That is, after all, a very smart law we ought to have.
We don’t need it as much, though, as we need to let people vote before a candidate is declared the winner. So the best law would be the one that Rep. Funderburk has proposed.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.