YOU COULD see this question one day in a S.C. trivia contest: Name the one Columbia mayor who was returned to office for four years by legislative fiat.
The answer is Steve Benjamin, and this decidedly undemocratic distinction will occur on Tuesday, when Columbia voters go to the polls to find that the mayor’s race is not on the ballot, even though the city held filing for the mayor’s office and three council seats this fall and Mr. Benjamin filed for re-election.
You might get bonus points if you can name the only other big-city S.C. mayor who was returned to office without voter consent: Greenville’s Knox White, two years ago.
Like Mayor Benjamin now, Mayor White was declared “re-elected” shortly after filing for that office closed, and the election was canceled.
The good news is that after today, this won’t happen again in Columbia or Greenville or any other large city.
The great news is that we have less than two months to go before we end a 14-year period during which South Carolina suspended the concept at the heart of a free society: the idea that our elected officials had to be, well … elected. The idea that even if only one person filed for an office, the voters still had the right to write in Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck or their cat or dog — or to simply boycott the election to show they don’t support the one person who filed. The idea that, conversely, every registered voter could vote for that one candidate as a show of support.
One of the wonderful, under-the-radar bills that the Legislature passed this year was Rep. Laurie Funderburk’s H.3150 to rescind the almost-certainly unconstitutional state law passed in 2003 that required municipal elections to be 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).
The political problem with the law was so clear that I began to think no one would openly support it. But then this spring, I heard from a scattering of municipal officials who defended it as a cost-saver. But not just a cost-saver. One with partisan elections explained that “there is no reason for any registered voter not to participate” in the Republican primaries that select the candidates who are then declared elected, since no Democrats ever run.
Now, I am 100 percent in agreement with the idea that when it’s clear that the Republican is going to win the general election, voters ought to vote in the Republican primary, and when the Democrat is going to win the general election, they should vote in the Democratic primary. Our state and nation would be improved immeasurably if the massive mainstream would take our elections back from the most extreme partisans by doing this. But there are Republicans who would rather burn their voter registration cards than to vote in a Democratic primary, and vice versa; to say they must do this or else lose the right to have even a theoretical say is beyond the pale.
He continued: “Not holding a point-less General Election has saved the City needless expense, time and manpower.” And “the present system works well for us.” Ah yes. It serves us well. As in, incumbents. Except, it doesn’t. Not really. It further erodes the fragile trust voters have in our system of government. It strips elected officials of an answer when voters ask, “Who elected you?”
Hundreds of people have been “elected” without their names appearing on a ballot since the law took effect. Most have been council members in our smallest towns; but Greenville’s Mayor White joined that list in 2015, and tomorrow, Mayor Benjamin follows. (So does Columbia City Councilman Daniel Rickenmann, and lots of other candidates the state over.)
Kershaw Rep. Laurie Funderburk has been trying to get the law rescinded since she read my 2015 column about Arcadia Lakes’ decision to hold an election in violation of this law. After her 2016 bill came just short of passing, she brought it back this year. The House passed it in March, and on May 3, with just four days left in the regular legislative session, the Senate passed an amended version, and the House agreed to the changes. Gov. Henry McMaster signed it into law the next day.
If Rep. Funderburk and the House had their way, Columbia voters would have the chance to vote for or against Mayor Benjamin today. But the Senate delayed the implementation to Jan. 1. It’d be great if that hadn’t happened, but goodness, what a small price to pay in return for eliminating the state-mandated voter disenfranchisement law that has littered our books since 2003.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at email@example.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.