January 17, 2013

Fix for ballot fiasco should turn filing over to state

The following editorial appeared Wednesday in The (Columbia) State

The following editorial appeared Wednesday in The (Columbia) State

It’s hard to imagine that the duplicative filing requirements that led to last year’s ballot purge would trip up future candidates.

Yes, it’s nonsensical to require non-incumbents to turn in paper copies of their economic-disclosure reports when they file for office when they’ve already completed those reports online. But the fact is that most candidates would have complied with both laws if state officials hadn’t essentially told them to do what the law should have required rather than what it actually required.

Still, clearing up that confusion and eliminating the separate-and-unequal requirements for incumbents and challengers is a symbolically important step for the Legislature to take. And Senate leaders’ decision to fast-track the fix could begin the long and difficult process of rebuilding public confidence in our state government, which has plunged to new depths as a result of that and other fiascos, debacles and controversies over the past year.

Unfortunately, as important as it is symbolically, the legislation does not address a systemic problem that the ballot debacle highlighted: the inappropriate role the political parties play in our elections.

The Democratic and Republican parties once ran our primaries, but the Legislature decided two decades ago that we needed professionally run elections that didn’t have the taint of corruption and sloppiness that the party-run primaries had. So it put state and local election officials in charge of running the primaries.

But it left the parties in charge of the filing process, even collecting the filing fees that are set by law. And we retained a patchwork system wherein candidates make appointments to show up at a local fast-food restaurant to hand over paperwork and a check to people who might be from a competing faction in the party and might or might not check to make sure their paperwork is in order.

Last year, some of those party officials who failed to check the paperwork pointedly ignored two Supreme Court orders and certified non-compliant candidates despite being warned not to. The result was that some candidates were disqualified after winning the primaries, and replaced on the November ballot with their defeated foes, further diminishing public confidence in the election process.

And the party officials did this damage to our state with impunity. After all, they don’t work for us — in fact, they’re volunteers — and they aren’t accountable to the public. Yet, we allow them to administer state laws and collect state fees.

Clearly, state officials can mess up, as they did in this case. But the bad instructions the Elections and Ethics commissions gave to candidates were honest mistakes, made in good faith. Not mistakes by people who care who runs and who doesn’t or who wins and who doesn’t. Unlike party officials, election workers have an incentive to try to follow the law: It’s their job, and they can get fired if they deliberately do their jobs badly.

The Senate Judiciary Committee added an amendment to the election bill to require party officials to collect candidate filings at the county election offices, and it allows them to have election officials perform the task for them. That’s a step in the right direction.

But it still allows political officials, who don’t work for us and can’t be held responsible for their actions, to perform official state duties. And that’s a terrible idea, which needs changing. A House bill filed last week by Speaker Pro Tem Jay Lucas and others would make that change: Candidates would have to notify party officials they were running, but they would file with election officials.

As symbolically important as it is to level the playing field for challengers and incumbents, and to rewrite a poorly thought-out law, the Legislature also needs to take official state duties away from the political parties and give them to election officials.

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