The S.C. Election Commission is facing the possibility of a governing board that’s more partisan and beholden to the legislature after its director suggested pandemic changes to expand access to absentee voting in the November election.
Stretch your memories to last spring as election officials prepared for the June primaries. The General Assembly approved a short-term plan to allow anyone to vote by absentee ballot. But it didn’t eliminate a requirement that a witness sign the ballot to verify the voter’s identity. A lawsuit was filed claiming health concerns and the right to vote outweighed fraud concerns over non-witnessed ballots. A federal judge agreed and there was no witness signature requirement in the primary.
The June election went relatively smoothly, prompting Commission Director Marci Andino to recommend changes to make the November elections as smooth. The General Assembly agreed, but again didn’t drop the witness signature requirement. Another legal snarl came with the state Republican Party strongly arguing to keep the requirement over the bogey monster of fraud. Again, a federal judge ruled to drop the requirement, but a GOP appeal led to its reinstatement by the Republican-dominated U.S. Supreme Court.
Fast forward to this week. A bill (H. 3444) authored by GOP House Speaker Jay Lucas seeks to improve the consistency of how county election officials interpret state laws on absentee ballots. The proposal essentially would give more power to the state Election Commission (SEC) to enforce a single standard. The thinking goes that ballots needed to be administered consistently, whether you vote absentee in Oconee County or Charleston County.
But the bill also proposes changes in how members of the Election Commission would be appointed by giving input to the legislature. (Surprise!)
Currently, the governor appoints five members of the commission. One must come from the General Assembly’s majority party and another from the minority party. That means a Democratic governor could have four Democrats and one Republican for the commission while a GOP governor could pick up to four Republicans.
But under the original Lucas proposal, the commission would expand to eight members, four of whom would be picked by the governor with only two from his party. The legislature would pick four other members, evenly split between the two parties. In other words, the commission would be four Republicans and four Democrats. But the legislature would end up picking four members, compared to zero now.
Then came more fiddling. Bill proponents added another commission member for a total of nine. The governor would be able to pick five, including four from his party. The legislature’s House speaker and Senate president still would pick four members, two from each party. In the new scheme, balance could shift to a 6-3 majority for the party of the governor, which has been controlled by Republicans since 2003. The GOP has controlled the House since 1994 and the state Senate since 2000.
Lucas’ office didn’t respond to a request for a comment. But a news report indicates the new deal between the House and governor’s office came to provide more latitude to the governor’s office and “appropriate accountability.”
Understandably, some commission watchers aren’t too happy over the reshaped bill, which passed 14-7 out of the House Judiciary Committee. Some House Democrats crowed the new formula wasn’t fair. And while the bill’s original intent to standardize practices around absentee voting makes sense, the League of Women Voters is worried.
“State Election Commission members have taken an increasingly active role in setting the agenda for South Carolina’s elections,” said the organization’s Lynn Teague of Columbia. “Who they are and who they answer to matters to all of us. Unfortunately, on a commission where membership is defined on the basis of partisan affiliation, there is a temptation to represent the party, rather than the voters.”
Examples: A more partisan commission could impact locations of polling locations and distribution of staff to benefit one party over the other.
The agency didn’t take a position on Lucas’s bill, but noted party representation is required among commission members.
“With that said, SEC members have typically served in a nonpartisan way making decisions based on law, not party allegiances,” said spokesman Chris Whitmire.
Still, we’re worried about the legislature’s potential intrusion into the commission’s make-up. You should be, too.
Andy Brack is publisher of Charleston City Paper. Have a comment? Send to: email@example.com.
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