S.C. election reform could restore trust


Americans have lost trust in their democratic institutions and elected representatives. This holds true at the national and state levels, and South Carolina is no exception. Restoring trust is essential to the survival of republican government in this country. Now is the time to make important changes.

Restoring trust starts with shoring up the election process. Democratic elections must be transparent, fair and competitive. Elections must present voters with real choice. If this is the standard, then we need to fix our elections in South Carolina.

South Carolina citizens are well aware that our election campaigns have been riddled with corruption. Recently, several of our state legislators have been convicted of or pleaded guilty to election finance violations. Many problems are rooted in an unregulated and out-of-control network of campaign consultants.

Fixing this problem is essential. In my view, we must establish a mandatory registry for campaign consultants, similar to the registry of lobbyists administered by the Ethics Commission. The registry would be managed by a nongovernmental organization that would establish transparency and rules for campaign consultants and issue seals of approval. Candidates would then have to report any payments to these registered consultants.

S.C. Statehouse elections themselves are also suspect. I remember during the Cold War ridiculing the Soviet Union for holding elections where only one name appeared on the ballot. Too many Statehouse elections present to voters a Soviet-style ballot with a single candidate listed. Voters are becoming irrelevant to the process of selecting leaders.

The facts speak for themselves: In 2016, 92 of 124 seats in the House of Representatives featured a candidate running unopposed by a major-party contender. Only 22 incumbents faced primary challengers; four were defeated. In the Senate, 38 of 46 seats were one-party races: 20 incumbents faced a primary, and five lost.

Residential segregation by race, and thus political party, accounts for a lack of electoral competitiveness in much of this state. But there are rule changes that could nudge elections in the right direction.

First, South Carolina should follow 21 other states in creating a nonpartisan boundary commission to draw House and Senate district borders.

By putting districting in the hands of legislators, we allow our politicians to pick their voters rather than the other way around. A committee composed of the governor, House speaker, Senate president pro tem and the minority leaders in both chambers should select a committee of 21 city, town and county officials to produce a boundary map that would come into force unless voted down by two-thirds of both the House and Senate.

Second, South Carolina should adopt a voting system similar to the one just adopted in Maine. Candidates from all parties run in a single primary. Voters rank order the candidates from their first choice down.

If no candidate gets a majority of votes after ballots are counted, the candidate finishing last is dropped off, and voters' second choices are added to the totals. The process repeats until two candidates are left. Those two candidates compete in the general election, even if they are from the same party.

Third, move primary elections to September. Incumbents love low-turnout, low-energy primaries, so they schedule them when all good citizens are heading for the beach. Move the primaries to the fall when citizens are ready to think about politics.

Finally, get rid of electronic voting. No Russian has ever hacked a paper ballot.

It is time South Carolina gets serious about reform. Great Society liberals and traditional conservatives, libertarians and Trumpians all believe the political establishment is no longer trustworthy. We need to reform the election system and then let the people of South Carolina elect leaders they can trust.

Brent F. Nelsen is a professor of politics and international affairs at Furman University. He can be reached at brent.nelsen@furman.edu.