Cindi Ross Scoppe

Why should we have to vote for just Republicans or just Democrats in primaries?

Just 20 percent of registered voters participated in South Carolina’s June 12 primaries, which means it requires support of only around 5 percent to win.
Just 20 percent of registered voters participated in South Carolina’s June 12 primaries, which means it requires support of only around 5 percent to win.

ARE YOU voting in today’s Republican runoff for governor and attorney general? Chances are excellent — 92.1 percent, to be precise — that you can. The runoff isn’t limited to people who voted in the June 12 Republican primary. It’s open to all registered voters in South Carolina except the 7.9 percent who voted in the Democratic primary.

I don’t say this simply to encourage you to vote, but also to underscore how few people make these decisions for us. And to suggest there might be better ways to do this. But hold that thought for a moment.

In a state with 3.9 million adults and just more than 3 million registered voters, only 621,841 people bothered to vote in the June 12 primaries: 12.1 percent in the Republican primary and 7.9 percent in the Democratic primary. The combined 20 percent turnout is up from 16 percent four years ago, when there were no gubernatorial primaries, and down from 24 percent in 2010, when newcomer Nikki Haley took out three veteran politicians. But even 24 percent is hardly impressive, when you consider that the vote is split at least four ways.

Which means: Rep. James Smith won his landslide victory in this year’s Democratic primary for governor by impressing … 4.9 percent of our state’s registered voters.

The 42 percent of the vote that Gov. Henry McMaster received to advance to the Republican runoff? That came thanks to the support of 5.1 percent of the state’s registered voters.

John Warren won the votes of 3.4 percent of registered voters.

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Cindi Ross Scoppe


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Although Democrats are elated that Mr. Smith received nearly as many votes as Mr. McMaster — Democratic turnout was much closer to Republican turnout than usual — the word “pathetic” comes to mind, for all three numbers.

Worse, it’s unlikely that either Mr. McMaster or Mr. Warren will get many — if any —more votes on Tuesday than Mr. McMaster received two weeks earlier. Because turnout drops off in a runoff. So it’s possible that Mr. McMaster could win the runoff with fewer votes than he took in the primary.

And yes, you need to vote in Tuesday’s runoff, even if you didn’t like any of the candidates or you think only partisans should vote or you want to see James Smith win. Because odds favor the Republican winning, so you want to make sure the Republican candidate you consider least bad is nominated.

Isn’t there a better way to do this? A way that would result in more people voting for the eventual nominees? Maybe.

In a top-two primary, as is used in California, Nebraska and Washington state, all of the candidates for an office are on the same ballot, and the top two vote-getters advance to the general election. (In Louisiana, all the candidates are listed on the general election ballot, and the top two advance to a runoff if neither gets 50 percent plus one.) If South Carolina used a top-two system, both Mr. McMaster and Mr. Smith would already be on their way to the November election.

Critics complain that in some extreme cases, this system can mean two Democrats or two Republicans in the general election. But frankly, in some districts, and sometimes in statewide contests, we’d cut down on mindless partisan voting and increase the odds of electing candidates most voters actually like if that happened.

A close relative to top-two is the blanket system, where candidates run in either a Republican or a Democratic primary, but voters can switch off — voting, say, in the Republican primary for governor and the Democratic primary for solicitor. A pretty attractive idea, if you ask me, and one we came close to adopting in South Carolina in 1991 — until party officials objected that they’d have no way of knowing whom to target for fund-raising solicitations if they didn’t know who voted in their primary.

The blanket system is the best way I know of to protect the rights of voters who live in a heavily Democratic county in a heavily Republican state, or the opposite, where the elections are effectively decided in the primaries. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down one blanked primary in 2000, which either means nothing, as we have an entirely different court today, or that the best change we could hope for would be the top-two system.

Partisans object to blanket, top-two primaries and even our own regular open primary system because they are convinced that voters loyal to the other party try to sabotage their party, by voting for the weakest and worst candidates. I could write an entire column about how much more that tells us about the ethics of the objectors than about the vast majority of voters — who realize that nominating the worst candidate could very well result in that “worst” candidate getting elected in November — but I won’t.

Instead, I’ll simply note that while a blanket primary wouldn’t necessarily prevent the need for a runoff, it would, like the top-two system, attract more voters, often more pragmatic, mainstream voters, who boycott the current system because they feel like they are affiliating with one of the political parties.

Of course, we don’t have that sort of system here, so please take my word for it, as someone who has voted occasionally in Democratic primaries and frequently in Republican primaries for 20 years: You don’t have to be a partisan to vote in a primary. Or a runoff.

You just have to care about how our state is governed.

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