Mick Who?

Drop the down-ticket offices from the ballot

April 1, 2013 

Can you name the state education superintendent? How about the state adjutant general? Comptroller general? Commissioner of agriculture? If you can, kudos to you, you’re ahead of the game. If you can’t, the situation we suspect most residents are in, it’s time to ask once more: Why are these elected positions?

The short answer, of course, is that the state legislature has never trusted the person in the governor’s office to appoint these positions. Heaven forbid that the person in that seat might actually have some larger measure of control over state government. Instead, it’s left up to voters to choose the winners of these posts every four years, voters who most likely have little if any knowledge of who they’re voting for. We suspect most voters simply pick the person in the party they identify with, in which case the real contest is not at the polls, but in the internal pushing and shoving among candidates to be the one on the ballot.

The legislature has at least begun the process of undoing this down-ticket silliness. After years of failed bills, lawmakers last year approved – and voters in November affirmed – having the governor and lieutenant governor run as a pair instead of as individual officers. And bills are moving through Columbia’s sausage-making machine to move more of these positions into the governor’s cabinet instead of separate political offices.

That change particularly makes sense in the case of the state’s adjutant general, who oversees the state’s National Guard. Major Gen. Bob Livingston, the current officeholder, is an ardent supporter of efforts to end elections for his position, and he makes a pretty good point: “We cannot afford to have politics within the Guard, and that’s just something that the current system does allow to happen,” he told The State newspaper recently. “Even if it’s remote, it does allow it to happen.”

South Carolina is the only state that elects rather than appoints its military leader. That either means we’re the only ones who got it right, or we’re the only ones who haven’t figured it out yet. The latter seems much more likely. Popularity and politics should have no place in deciding the best leader for our state’s military.

Yes, making these changes on the state level would give the governor’s office more power – you know, actually making the executive branch on par with the legislative – but it would also help the state avoid conflicts that can paralyze government.

The superintendent of education, who oversees 40 percent of the state’s general fund budget, for example, should be someone that the governor can work with to pursue a shared vision. The same goes for the leader of Agriculture. And the comptroller general, the state’s accountant and financial watchdog. For that matter, we’ve never understood why county-level positions such as auditor, coroner and clerk of court are elected rather than appointed. But we digress.

Spreading the state’s executive power across all of these positions may fit into the storyline that the governor can’t be trusted with all that responsibility. But it also means the governor – the putative leader of our state – often isn’t the one to blame when things go wrong.

As The State’s Cindi Scoppe pointed out recently, “South Carolina’s governor can’t be held responsible for how well our schools perform, because she has less influence over them than an individual state senator. Less, even, than a House member. All she can do is veto bills.”

Choosing our leaders is a cherished right of this nation’s citizens, but we must also accept that ordinary voters have neither the time nor the zeal needed to have an informed opinion about every single position. Instead, we must trust and be able to hold accountable those leaders we do choose to appoint others who keep our governments running.

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