Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: Election called due to lack of interest? In South Carolina, it’s all too common

AP

MOST ELECTED elected officials in South Carolina get re-elected year after year without opposition, but they do have to go through the formality of actually being re-elected. Most, but not all.

Come December, Greenville Mayor Knox White and three City Council members will be stripped of the right to call themselves elected officials. Instead, they will begin new terms by government fiat, after the city election commission called off the November election and declared them winners.

And you thought elections were rigged in Russia? At least they HAVE elections.

Not South Carolina, at least not all the time. Here we often “elect” town and city council members and mayors — and occasionally county officials — without even pretending to have elections.

Read the law, at section 7-13-190(E)

Under a 2003 law, election officials are required to cancel municipal elections and special elections when only one candidate files for an office and no one declares a write-in candidacy by two weeks after the close of filing. This was not, by the way, something municipal officials requested; they considered it “a radical departure from customary election procedures” that was “constitutionally suspect.”

An attorney general’s opinion later that year agreed, finding that the law probably violates a provision of the state constitution that gives every qualified voter “an equal right to elect officers and be elected to fill public office.” Forcing write-in candidates to declare their candidacies in advance nullifies the notion that anyone can be elected. Declaring a winner without an election deprives everyone of the right to “elect officers.”

But an opinion doesn’t do us any good until someone files a lawsuit challenging a canceled election, which apparently no one has done. So a dozen years later, we’re stuck with a law that, properly followed, pretty much wipes out the possibility of write-in campaigns, since they usually don’t get started until much later than this law cancels the election. An extreme case in point occurred just two years before the law was passed, when Bill Barnet was elected mayor of Spartanburg after a write-in campaign that was started just five days before the election.

We don’t elect a lot of write-in candidates to major offices in South Carolina, although we did elect a U.S. senator that way in 1954 (Strom Thurmond). It’s not uncommon, though, for write-in candidates to win elections in small towns. And small towns are where the cancellations usually occur.

The State Election Commission says the largest cancellation to date was in Berkeley County Council District 2, where a special election to fill a vacancy was called off earlier this year when only one candidate filed. Greenville will surpass that in November when election officials crown their mayor … mayor.

The cancellations probably have been held down by the belief that holding or canceling an election is up to local officials; early on, municipal officials went through a good bit of public hand-wringing over whether to go ahead and hold an election without challengers. Silly officials; they should know the Legislature never gives them choices.

A lot of people also seem to believe that the law applies only where there is no competition for any seat, but it’s much broader than that. So, for instance, Columbia City Councilman Moe Baddourah’s name should not appear on the November election ballot, even though the city will open polling places in his district, since at-large Councilman Cameron Runyan does face opposition.

This flies in the face of the argument that was used to sell S.C. Code Section 7-13-190(E) to the Legislature: as a way to save money on special elections to fill unexpired terms when there’s only one candidate on the ballot. I never understood why it applied to all municipal elections, but the State Election Commission says that as a result of this overreach, “hundreds” of elections have been canceled.

A Greenville election commissioner told The Greenville News that the commission called off the November election because it “just made sense to save the money and save the trouble.” A county election official said it would save the city $60,000.

Mayor, council members won’t have to run in November

Sixty thousand dollars, in a city with a $76 million budget.

Governments do a lot of things that are a waste of money. Holding elections is not one of them.

In fact, the cost of not holding an election is exponentially higher than the cost of holding one.

Even if we’re unhappy with the outcome, our elected officials have legitimacy because they can say that the public chose them, and even their fiercest critics cannot dispute that. Even if there was no one else on the ballot, people still had to vote for them — and if we wanted to badly enough, we had the opportunity to do something about it, right up through Election Day.

Cancel the election, and that legitimacy disappears.

Cancel the election, and critics will rightly ask: Who put you in charge?

Cancel the election, and the feeling too many people have that their vote doesn’t count is finally and fully confirmed.

For this, Mayor White and hundreds of other public officials across the state can thank our Legislature.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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