South Carolina lawmakers are considering a bill that would transfer control over the state’s elections from an independent agency to a partisan office.
The Republican-introduced bill would eliminate the nonpartisan State Elections Commission, and would instead create a Division of Elections administered by the Secretary of State. The move raises concerns about partisan influence over elections in a state with a history of political disenfranchisement.
“There is no place for partisan politics in elections administration,” said Elections Commission Director Marci Andino, who testified against the measure. “Returning control over elections to an elected official rather than an independent body would be a step backward.”
Andino cited the Ohio Secretary of State’s use of administrative rules to favor Republican- dominated districts in 2012, which caused national controversy due to the state’s electoral importance. “In states where the elections division is under the Secretary of State, important decisions are often made based on a political agenda — not the best interest of the voters,” Andino said.
There’s no denying that South Carolina’s elections system needs fixing, especially in the
wake of the Election Day debacle in Richland County which caused thousands of voters to be disenfranchised. However, voting rights watchdogs say this bill would do nothing to fix the real problem — a lack of authority and funding for the Elections Commission to ensure that counties follow uniform best practices.
“A transfer of responsibility to the Secretary of State’s office would not correct this real problem, and introduces the potential for new problems,” said Lynn Teague of the League of Women Voters.
Secretary of State Mark Hammond told lawmakers he took an oath to abide by the laws of the state, and would continue to do so if he gains control over South Carolina’s elections system. However, the fact remains that Hammond is a Republican — and would be in a position to wield considerable influence of the system to help his party.
“This would make the Secretary of State the most important elected official in the state,” said Rep. Bakari Sellers, who voted against the bill. “He would control our freedom and democracy.”
The State Elections Commission was formed in 1968 for the specific purpose of taking partisan politics out of the electoral system. The Elections Commission has five members, at least one of which is required to be a member of the minority party. The director and staff are prohibited from affiliating with any political party, a rule that would likely go out the window if the elections system was run by a partisan official like the Secretary of State.
“Times change, and there will come a time when we have another Democrat in office,” said Sellers. “And I think Republicans would share my concerns. It’s not about political parties, it’s about preserving rights.”