The South Carolina legislature begins its work this week and, as usual, there’s plenty on the honorables’ part-time plates.
They must contend with an assortment of budgetary challenges, including federally forced expansion of health care coverage. They’ve got to do something about the state’s cyber security. And then there’s ethics. A special commission will report on the topic sometime this spring. Action to shore up this important area will certainly be demanded.
Amid all this, there is one simple little item that we once again encourage the men and women of both houses to take care of quickly, and that’s fixing the election filing mess that turned the 2012 political season into a full-blown fiasco. Readers will recall that incongruities in old and new state failing requirements resulted in the disqualification of hundreds of state and local candidates across South Carolina. That, in turn, resulted in an election in which hundreds of races were essentially uncontested. It resembled, in a general way, the sort of “show” elections held in one-party People’s Republics of This or That, where competition and voter choice are little more than theories.
The critical ruling that created the election morass was handed down by the South Carolina Supreme Court. But the supremes were only interpreting a set of contradictory laws enacted at different times by the legislator. An old one, requiring all candidates to file an ethics statement explaining their connections, if any, to state money, position or contracts at the time of filing bumped into a new one requiring that candidates file their ethics statement online so it could be available for immediate inspection. This had the effect of forcing nonincumbents to file for office, and file ethics statements, in a precise, almost simultaneous manner. It wasn’t impossible to do, but it wasn’t easy either. And, most party officials – the folks charged with overseeing proper filing – didn’t fully understand the rules.
The result? As noted, a big mess.
Legislators said at the time that the whole thing was all a big misunderstanding. The parties – including then-legislator Nikki Haley – responsible for the new, instantaneous ethics filing law didn’t realize the problems that would cause. They didn’t see, for instance, that the new rule would create different filing standards for incumbents vs. nonincumbents. The former have to file annual ethical statements by a certain date, whether they are running for election that year or not. That supersedes the requirement that they file along with filing for office. It also meant that every incumbent, unless he or she goofed up in some still-more-colossal fashion, was assured of successfully filing, while only the most attentive nonincumbents could pull off the feat.
It’s certainly plausible that this was all just an oversight. It’s also more than a little suspicious that the folks who passed the new law – incumbents – received a political boost from its passage. Far fewer incumbents were challenged in the South Carolina legislature this year than usual. If you’re an incumbent, that’s good news. Even a poor campaigner with a bad record can win unopposed.
This debacle need not happen again. It’s an easy fix that could be accomplished in a number of ways. State Sen. Larry Martin, a Republican from Pickens County and a leader in the upper house, told The Associated Press last week that a fix for the filing mess would be a priority.
We hope Martin and his colleagues follow through. Repairing this problems is a small potatoes kind of thing, compared to doling out the dollars from the $6 billion general fund. But it is easy to do and the legislature, which struggles with so much, ought to grab low-hanging fruit when it can.
Plus, it’s important. The people of the state need to know that elections here are on the up and up. They deserve a chance to challenge incumbents at all levels with as much ease as possible.
If there is the slightest hesitancy on the part of the legislature to correct this error, then the public should start to wonder what is really going on. Did incumbents screw this up on purpose, the better to protect some already pretty safe seats?
We don’t think that’s the case.
But we’ll be watching all the same.