The worst-governed state in America — that’s the way I have described South Carolina many times over the past 10 years, and I have previously shown the numbers to prove it. There’s no need to repeat them here other than to say that in almost every national quality-of-life index — be it about income, education level, life expectancy, infant mortality, violent crime, or environmental quality — we place near the bottom.
Part of South Carolina’s problem is the historic resistance of our leaders — and much of its white population — to the laws and culture of the United States. We saw it in the nullification crisis of 1832, the days leading up to secession and the Civil War, and the resistance to all civil rights and voting rights legislation in the past century. All of these federal laws have had the purpose of improving democracy and the quality of life of this backward, benighted state. Most recently the state was at the U.S. Supreme Court fighting the Affordable Care Act. Gov. Nikki Haley and the GOP legislature are sworn to resist the ACA’s insurance exchanges which are intended to provide healthcare to the poor.
This angry, obstructionist behavior by state leaders is part of a pattern of anti-democratic governance that has held South Carolina back. We saw two other examples of this behavior in the news recently.
The first was a report by the Voting Integrity Program at Common Cause, which declared that South Carolina was among six states that were unprepared to deal with voting machine failures on Election Day. According to the report, we are one of only 16 states that still use paperless voting machines.
“If those machines malfunction, there’s no way to independently check what the actual voter’s intent was,” said a spokeswoman for the Voting Integrity Project. “In these 16 states, we’re very vulnerable to miscounts that won’t be caught.”
But if you have been following the news in recent months, you know that this is not the voting problem the S.C. General Assembly seeks to address. Following a play out of the national Republican playbook, our legislature has passed a Voter ID law to prevent voter fraud, yet there has been no evidence of voter impersonation in this state in decades. What this law will likely do, according to the League of Women Voters and the ACLU, is disenfranchise nearly 200,000 poor and elderly voters. The U.S. Justice Department has challenged the law in federal court.
That our General Assembly would ignore real and proven voting machine problems, while going to extreme and expensive measures to fix a nonexistent voting problem and in the process disenfranchise much of the electorate, says all that needs to be said about our leaders’ agendas.
And yet, there is more to say. The day after the Voting Integrity Program released its report, another independent agency, the State Integrity Investigation, ranked the Palmetto State as the worst in the country for access to public records.
The Post and Courier reported that the state earned a big fat “F” for transparency. The State Integrity Investigation cited a lack of options for citizens outside of court action in appealing a denied public information request. And the state has no agency to monitor the application of its freedom of information law.
Jay Bender, an attorney for the S.C. Press Association, said the root of our state’s transparency problem is a deep and ancient culture of secrecy, dating back to colonial times, when a “thin band of elites” ran the government.
“We took that cultural model directly from the plantation to the mill village, and in many ways that remains the dominant political culture in South Carolina,” Bender told the P&C.
Anyone who has practiced journalism in this state for a while knows how difficult it is to get information from public agencies who do not want to surrender it. Not only does it make for bad governance, but it makes for bad journalism. After all, a secretive public culture makes it difficult for journalists to do their job. And without good journalism, good government is impossible.
So we have here a perfect storm of bad government. Not only do the citizens of South Carolina have little power to learn what their leaders are doing, but if they were to find out, there is little they could do about it. Voter suppression, coupled with unreliable voting technology, undermines the legitimacy of elections and of elected officials. The result is a cynical public and the worst-governed state in America.
Will Moredock is an award-winning journalist and short-story writer and author of Banana Republic: A Year in the Heart of Myrtle Beach.