Yes, SC has 500 problems worse than election commission

For more than 20 years, I’ve taken every opportunity to apprise South Carolinians of just how amazingly fouled-up their system of government is. Whenever something that touches on the fact is in the news, I try to tell people. And while I was editorial page editor, the editorial board did so as well.

And the two remaining associate editors continue to do so, as Cindi Scoppe did in today’s column. An excerpt:

BY S.C. standards, the byzantine arrangement that produced perhaps the worst election debacle in modern state history — an inexperienced elections director hand-picked by state legislators who thought they reserved unto themselves the exclusive ability to fire her but in fact did not, and might or might not have given that authority to a commission that they also hand-picked and can’t fire, and an elections office over which the county council has absolutely no control but must fund at a level set by an almost certainly unconstitutional state law — is practically a governmental best practice.

After all, there are only 46 of these legislative delegation-controlled/uncontrolled election commissions, each one covers an entire county, and they don’t meddle in anybody else’s business.

For a truly remarkable example of legislative meddling gone mad, consider South Carolina’s special-purpose districts, each of which provides a single service, mostly to tiny segments of the population, most of which are operated by people who are at least two steps removed from even the theoretical possibility of accountability to the public, some of which have been disguised to make voters think they have some say, when they actually don’t.

They are the tail that wags our legislative dog: These legislative creations are among the most potent political forces at the State House, capable of stymieing an array of reforms that would make local government more efficient and effective and accountable to the public. Which they do.

Did I mention that there are more than 500 of these independent fiefdoms? Which means that, when you add them to all the counties and cities and towns and school districts, we have 900 local governments in South Carolina? Talk about fragmentation…

You should read the rest of it. Cindi, and I, have pointed these facts out many times in the past. And we keep hoping that one day, people will pay enough attention to demand change.

Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?…

19 thoughts on “Yes, SC has 500 problems worse than election commission

  1. tavis micklash

    I made the exact same point to James Smith. I recommended that in his election reform bill he place the power over the election commissioners in the hands of county council.

    It wont happen because it would torpedo his bill but its something I try to bring up when I see the state legislature wasting time on what should be local.

    Here is my link to my full story.

    I did post the same link earlier but this more appropriate thread wasn’t up yet.

    For a state as entrenched as we are in “state rights” that federalism doesn’t trickle down.

  2. Doug Ross

    Why would the people expect accountability when Cindi and you won’t hold specific people accountable? The broken system is broken because specific people broke it. It didn’t just happen.

    There are a half dozen specific people who could change the system but the editorials never hold their feet to the fire.

    As long as Leatherman, Harrell, and a few others remain in office, nothing will change.

    Why wouldn’t Cindi or The State go directly to those two guys and get them to justify the system? Put them on the front page, big photos with a headline: “These Two Men Are Responsible For Your Government”

    Hold THEM accountable and we might see change. Blame the “system” and all we will see is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

  3. Brad

    Because it doesn’t work the way you think it does, Doug — that’s why.

    In that excerpt, Cindi alluded to the actual problem — those SPDs’ influence with their individual lawmakers. And with 500 of them, most lawmakers have several SPDs in their district.

  4. Bart


    You have only a small part of the Leatherman saga. After personal experience with his politics and penchant to insert himself into certain situations where there is a clear conflict of interest, Hugh Leatherman is the worst offender in Columbia. He and Harrell run the state, Nikki Haley is a convenient whipping post for critics and criticism.

    At this point, South Carolina is perfect for their type of government control and you can bet they won’t let it go until the voters have finally had enough.

    It will be a great day when Leatherman and Harrell are no longer in Columbia running the state.

  5. Doug Ross

    Nothing happens in the State House unless Harrell and Leatherman say it does. If they don’t want change, there won’t be change.

    Why doesn’t Vincent Sheheen make that a key issue and start taking on the challenge now? Let’s see if he’s a leader or not.

  6. Silence

    The SPD’s are a good example of what happens when we overfund our government.

    Legislator – “Oh look, there’s some ‘extra’ money in the till this year.”

    Senator – “We can’t let that mooolah go to waste, let’s find a way to bring it back to our districts.”

    Legislator – “Good idea, let’s form a special district for the purposes of operating a museum devoted to paper or cloth excrement containers. That’s big business in my district.

    Senator – Yup, there’s sure a lot of them in my district too.

    Legislator – “You know, my sister’s kid is really an expert on portable paper excrement containers, we could pay him 90k a year to run this museum.”

    Senator – “well, that’s true, he is an expert but my mother in law REALLY knows all about these things.”

    Legislator – “OK, let’s hire them both!”

    Six months later we have a museum.

  7. Brad

    No, Silence, that’s not how SPDs happen. Basically, they predate the existence of local government, and just didn’t go away when home rule came.

    I think you’ll find most SPDs predate any current lawmakers as well.

  8. Doug Ross


    So describe the process of getting rid of the SPD’s.

    Who makes the first step? What is that step? What can an average citizen do to begin the process?

    If the answer is “Call your legislator” then we’re done here.

  9. Greg

    Nobody does anything because:
    1. The average SC citizen doesn’t care.
    2. Most South Carolinians realize they cannot remove a legislator from their legislatively gerrymandered seats, so they don’t bother to get worked up over it.
    3. They have had this kind of crap shoved down their throat, or elsewhere, for so long that they expect it.
    All these are the same reasons I have no problem believing in a conspiracy in the Richland County elections.

  10. Brad

    Here’s the problem…

    The case for doing away with SPDs is fairly straightforward, although abstract. If you speak of SPDs as a whole, it’s not too hard for the person you’re speaking to to see that this would not be the best way to provide these services. (That’s true in MOST cases, at least. There are a few SPDs that should remain. Multi-county SPDs, such as the one for the Columbia airport, make some sense, since they overlap several local jurisdictions. You sort of need an administrative entity that has input from those several jurisdictions.)

    As long as you talk about SPDs at this 30,000-foot level, people will say, “You’re right; they shouldn’t exist.”

    The problem comes in when it gets down to individual SPDs. And that’s the way most lawmakers (very few of whom have ANY grasp of the larger issue at all) interact with them. The board members and other advocates for a given SPD — say, the Irmo-Chapin Recreation District — will say, “Look at the awesome job we’ve done! Isn’t Saluda Shoals great? Why would you want your constituents not to have these services? Why would you want to penalize us for having done a good job?”

    What this ignores, of course, is that you can provide the same kind of services through county government, rather than having a special entity that only exists for this specific, narrow purpose.

    But that’s the abstract argument of an editorialist, or a political scientist. Whereas the face of SPD advocacy is specific and human, and makes arguments that sound reasonable to a semi-informed lawmaker.

    And that’s why these things don’t go away.

    If every constituent who is NOT an advocate of an SPD — and that would be a majority in most districts — would DEMAND that lawmakers do away with these things, it would drown out the voices defending them.

    But that does not happen. The average voter doesn’t understand the issues involved, and is in no way invested in reform. Whereas the defenders of SPDs are very much, and very specifically, invested in the status quo.

  11. Brad

    Another way to put it is, the status quo is way, WAY more important to defenders of SPDs than reform is to most people. So things don’t change.

  12. Brad

    And Doug, yes, the first step is “call your legislator.” Or buttonhole him when you run into him. Or whatever. Basically, make him know this is important to you.

    And then LOTS of other people need to do the same.

    Because right now, the lawmakers hear mainly, or at least most insistently, from the people who don’t want change.

    And that is the main thing that motivates most lawmakers — what they hear from their constituents.

  13. Brad

    That’s why our tax system is so messed up. Lawmakers deal with taxes in terms of trying to address the complaints they get from constituents. They don’t go, “What’s the most rational way to raise revenue, that’s fair and stable and has the least negative impact on the economy?” They think, “How can I please these people who complain to me about their taxes all the time?”

    So you get a system in which property taxes (the most stable revenue source) play less and less of a role in funding government services, and the sales tax gets overburdened. Among other things.

  14. Brad

    Standard thing that a lawmaker would say to someone like me: “The only people I hear from wanting this are you editorial writers. My constituents never mention this stuff…”

  15. Doug Ross

    Tilting at windmills… that’s all this is. You cannot change the system unless you change the people in charge. You can’t change the people in charge unless a) you hold them personally responsible or b) implement term limits.

    I’m 100% sure that if you laid this issue at the feet of Harrell and Leatherman (people, not systems) they would feel the pressure. Give them the same treatment Lillian McBride has been getting.

    I’ll ask again – what is stopping Vincent Sheheen from making this and tax reform the two key issues of his next campaign? What’s stopping him from being a leader? other than needing to play politics?

    1. tavis micklash

      Doug, you HAVE to start somewhere.

      Here is how I look at it. I pushed pretty hard against the penny tax. Not because I hate all taxes but because I thought the penny tax was too far reaching.

      In the end the tax passed but I met contacts and engaged people that usually wouldn’t care. about a local politics website. Trust me thats the vast majority of people too.

      So next time I have a built in network to jump off from for my next cause. Even if this is a more progressive cause people disagreeing and publicly debating the idea brings attention too it.

      So I have a better chance of being able to push back on the next issue I want to draw attention to.

      That is the beauty of local politics as well. It only takes a few people showing up or campaigning for an idea to get attention and action.

  16. Doug Ross

    Look how much passion and interest Richland County voters have expressed regarding McBride… and what has the response been? People like Joel Lourie have stayed in the background.

    How about this – you have contact with Lourie. Ask him how many constituents would have to call him for take the case for the elimination of SPD’s to the legislature?

    You know what the answer will be? “I will surely pass that along to the leadership and we will form a committee to study the impact of SPD’s. Then we will see if we can fit it on the calendar next year for further review.”

    They have ZERO incentive to fix the problem.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *