Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: The election that SC law prohibits

tglantz@thestate.com

THEY’RE HOLDING an election on Tuesday in Arcadia Lakes, a tiny little town about a mile outside of Columbia and hugged by Forest Acres, where the dams burst last month and sent floodwaters roaring over homes and businesses.

That’s not remarkable in itself: They’re holding elections on Tuesday in Columbia and Irmo and Myrtle Beach and Fort Mill and Port Royal and Bluffton and, altogether, about 100 municipalities around the state.

What’s remarkable about the Arcadia Lakes election is that state law prohibits it.

State law says that the two candidates who filed for office have already been elected — without a single vote being cast. State law further prohibits the counting of any votes that are cast, a provision included I suppose in the event that a municipality decides to ignore the state law that says it’s not supposed to give the voters an opportunity to have a say in who represents them.

The law, which requires officials to cancel municipal elections and special elections when only one candidate files for an office and no one declares a write-in candidacy within two weeks after filing closes, produces a Stalinesque effect of disappearing people, and elections: One minute you’re told there’s an election in your city or town; the next minute there’s no trace of it.

If you can think of a better way to convince people that their vote doesn’t count and their government is an outside force that doesn’t belong to them, please let your legislators know; I’m sure they’d like some ideas for how they can further undermine our democracy.

Arcadia Lakes Mayor Mark Huguley told me his council wasn’t trying to defy state law when it voted unanimously last month to hold an election. He and the council members simply misread the law as giving them the option to cancel the election or not. They easily decided to let voters vote after reading my column about this disturbing law, which has been quietly disenfranchising S.C. voters since the Legislature passed it in 2003.

“Council voted unanimously to hold the election because we believe it is every elector’s right to vote for their choice, even if their decision is made at the last minute,” Mr. Huguley told me last week. “A canceled election is no election.”

Among those voting to hold the election was Councilwoman Linda Jackson, one of the two candidates who filed for the two council seats. In other words, she voted to risk her certain re-election in order to preserve the right of voters to write in an opponent and oust her.

If I were a legislator, I would be embarrassed by her commitment to preserving the integrity of our system of government. Of course, if I were a legislator, I’d be embarrassed to have voted for — or at least done nothing to repeal — a law that is so clearly unconstitutional.

As the S.C. attorney general’s office explained in a 2003 opinion, S.C. Code Section 7-13-190(E) seems to violate 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.” The law for all practical purposes prohibits write-in campaigns, which don’t generally emerge so quickly after filing closes.

But even such a clearly unconstitutional law still has the force of law unless or until someone files a lawsuit and a court strikes it down.

The law was sold as a cost-cutting measure, but if you want to cut costs by cutting down on elections, why stop at uncontested municipal elections? Why not order candidates for the Legislature automatically elected if no one runs against them? For that matter, we could get into some serious cost savings if we extended the terms of council members and legislators and governors and presidents to, oh, 10 years. Or 20 years. Or life. Think of all the money we could save by never holding elections again: Let the elected officials’ children inherit the offices when their parents die.

If you think the law sounds like a good way to cut down on expenses, you should think about the cost of not holding elections. Stripping voters of the right to actually vote for the people who represent them undermines the very concept of self-government.

So here’s where things stand, 12 years after the Legislature quietly passed this certainly undemocratic and almost certainly unconstitutional law:

Town and city council members who want to disenfranchise voters — or who simply don’t think these things through — are allowed to do so. And council members who are committed to upholding the principles they swore an oath to defend must violate the law in order to do that.

We don’t need anyone to file a lawsuit to test the constitutionality of the law. And we don’t need towns and cities to engage in mass civil disobedience — or ignorant violations of the law. What we need is for the Legislature to repeal the law.

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

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