Cindi Ross Scoppe

How these women are making it easier to learn about candidates in the June 12 primaries

Keller Barron, left, and Janelle Rivers demonstrate the League of Women Voters’ Vote411 website, which provides voters information about the candidates they’ll be able to choose from.
Keller Barron, left, and Janelle Rivers demonstrate the League of Women Voters’ Vote411 website, which provides voters information about the candidates they’ll be able to choose from. Cindi Ross Scoppe

PRIMARIES AREN’T for wimps.

In the general election, you can just hand your brain over to a political party to make all the decisions for you — something far too many voters do, to the great detriment of our republic. All you have to do is select the candidates with the correct letter after their names.

But in the primaries, you have to actually think. You have to sort through the candidates and figure out which ones to support — one hopes because you agree with their positions or share their values or believe them to be people of intelligence or integrity, and not simply because you like the way they look or some other completely irrelevant reason.

Of course, there are special-interest groups that are happy to tell us how to vote — but even if we’re willing to turn our brains over to them, we have to at least decide which special interest groups to listen to.

Maybe that’s why so few of us actually vote in primaries — just 14 percent of S.C. registered voters two years ago, and 16 percent in 2014.

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Cindi Ross Scoppe

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Want to get rid of that incumbent? November will probably be too late

Everyone who’s running for governor, other statewide offices this year

Everyone who’s running for the SC House this year

Everyone who’s running for Richland and Lexington county offices this year

Candidates on your ballot

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But primaries are often the only chance voters have to make their voices heard, since many candidates don’t have any general election opposition, and those who do often are running in districts (or states) that are so skewed toward one party that we already know who will win in November once the primaries are over.

Which brings us to South Carolina’s political primaries — which are just three weeks away, on June 12 — and a new effort to make it easier for voters to compare candidates.

The S.C. League of Women Voters and local chapters have been contacting candidates for state and local offices, and on Tuesday, they unveiled VOTE411.org, which lets you type in your address and get a list of the candidates you’ll have the option of voting for on June 12, along with where they stand on issues. Well, assuming they’ve answered the league’s questions.

Vote411.org was launched 12 years ago by the national League of Women Voters, but it’s only worthwhile if local volunteers have gathered information from local candidates, and this is the first year that has happened in South Carolina.

Keller Barron, who’s overseeing the Columbia chapter’s efforts, told me Tuesday that about a third of the candidates had responded so far, which is actually not that bad for a first-year effort, particularly one that includes candidates who have no opposition. But it’s not good enough, and the only way it will get better is if we make it clear to candidates that we expect them to do so.

“In some states, it’s become so important that candidates wouldn’t dare not respond,” said Columbia league president Janelle Rivers.

A lot of candidates have told me over the years that they don’t fill out candidate questionnaires because they feel like they’re being forced into making black-and-white decisions about topics that should be gray. It’s often a legitimate objection, because the questionnaires are often sponsored by special-interest groups, often with the very purpose of boxing the candidates in.

That’s not the case with the league’s brief questionnaires. They ask the candidates to explain their top three priorities and what about their background qualifies them to be elected. The topics clearly skew toward the league’s priorities — the environment, public education, gun safety and redistricting. But the questions are mostly open-ended, and the ones that aren’t request candidates to explain their answers.

I’m particularly glad the league is doing this because I had decided I couldn’t justify the time it took me in the past few elections to cajole candidates in selected contests into completing similar questionnaires; I was feeling guilty about that, even though I’m not convinced that a lot of people actually read the candidates’ responses.

If you’re a thoughtful voter, VOTE411.org won’t give you enough information to make a decision. But it’s a good starting place, and maybe the best one-stop-shop around. Particularly on down-ballot races, it might give you more information than you’ll find anywhere else.

The State Election Commission lets you generate an actual sample ballot, at scvotes.org, but it’s balkier, and it can be intimidating. The league’s site, by contrast, allows you to take a look at all the candidates at once — not just all the Republicans or just all the Democrats — which I think makes it easier to figure out where it’s most important to cast your ballot. It also gives you contact information, pictures and answers to those questions — when the candidates are participating.

I went to vote411.org and checked my own Richland County ballot and the ballot for a friend who lives in Lexington County. In both cases, participation was slightly heavier among Democrats than Republicans, which probably reflects the league’s reputation as a left-of-center organization. Four candidates for governor had completed the form (two from each party), and two candidates for attorney general.

But all seven candidates in the June 19 special election for an at-large seat on the Lexington 1 School Board are participating, which suggests that this new tool might be particularly useful where it is most needed, in those down-ballot races that don’t get any attention.

It’ll become even more useful over time if we all use it — and let candidates know that we expect them to participate.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.

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