Category Archives: REform

Time for change: Scoppe column on judicial vote-trading

Did you see the exclusive story in The State the other day to this effect:

State and federal law enforcement officials are questioning S.C. legislators about potential illegal vote swapping in February’s race that re-elected the state’s Supreme Court chief justice, multiple sources have told The State….

Did you find yourself confused in reading it? Did you think to yourself, Don’t lawmakers trade votes all the time, on all sorts of issues? Since when is that illegal?

Well, Cindi Scoppe helps walk you through all that in her column today. She explains that yes, lawmakers routinely swap votes on issues — the General Assembly would get even less done if they did not.

But she also explains how a series of horrific events in 1995 that caused lawmakers to elect less-qualified jurists to the bench led to reform, and the practice was banned — with regard to judicial selection. (And ironically, the reform was passed by a vote-swapping deal between House and Senate conferees.)

Here’s her recap of what happened back then to lead to the reform:

it starts on a sunny spring day in 1995, when the Legislature elected E.C. Burnett to the Supreme Court and Kay Hearn to the Court of Appeals and re-elected Danny Martin to the Circuit Court. Mr. Burnett and Ms. Hearn were qualified for the positions, but analyses by the S.C. Bar and the Legislature’s judicial screening committee showed that they were the least qualified candidates in their hotly contested races. The committee found Mr. Martin didn’t understand the law at all, and the Bar had declared him unfit for the bench.

As senators filed out of the House chamber after the election, then-Sen. Robert Ford bragged about how it all happened: The Legislative Black Caucus pledged 20 votes for Hearn in exchange for Horry County votes for Martin and 18 votes for Burnett in return for four Spartanburg County votes for Martin; another five Spartanburg County legislators agreed not to vote in the Martin race.

“All kind of deals was made,” Sen. Ford told reporters. “I had to sell my soul to 10 devils.”

No one denied the deals, because vote trading always had been a part of judicial elections — whether the votes involved other judicial races or legislation. And why not? Trading votes is a natural part of the legislative process….

As so often during his lamentable lawmaking career, there was the brazen Robert Ford, standing as the poster child of bad government. But of course, he was just the most visible manifestation of something much more widespread. Perhaps we even owe him a debt of gratitude for making the unsavory situation so much more obvious.

That’s all history, but the thing that deserves even more attention is this conclusion:

I supported the current system for a long time, because it was such a huge improvement over what came before. But it never was a good system, because it encourages the sort of logrolling that is alleged to have occurred in the chief justice race, and because it allows one branch of government to control the judiciary.

And if one person rules the House with an iron hand — one person who is not the governor, who is not elected by all the voters of this state, and who is not accountable to the public for his power — it allows that one person to control the judiciary. As felt so disturbingly to be the case as we watched Mr. Harrell’s treatment in our courts in the weeks and months leading up to his indictment this summer on public corruption charges.

That’s sort of new, and sort of not.

I have long held the position that we should switch to a different method of choosing judges, preferably one like the federal system — the governor nominates, and the Senate confirms. That spreads out the power across the other two branches of government, and makes sure that the one individual having extensive say in the matter is one elected by all of the people, not just one House district.

But since the reforms of the 1990s, which did much to inject merit into the current system of election by the General Assembly, I (and the editorial board) acknowledged that the system was much better than it had been, and so we let judicial selection slide to a back burner. We still advocated for change when the subject came up, but we didn’t drive it the way we did so many other issues.

The events of the past year or two — with Bobby Harrell trying to bat the judiciary around like cat with a chew toy, so soon after a dramatic example of his power in choosing justices — mean it’s time to move real, substantive reform to the front rank of priorities.

It’s high time to stop letting the Legislature choose judges, all by its lonesome.

Cumulative voting might be worth trying…

… but it’s not a complete cure to extremism in politics.

Michael Rodgers made a reference to Cindi Scoppe’s column earlier in the week advocating cumulative voting as a cure to the extremism that single-member districts tend to foster.

The problem is this: Lawmakers draw safe districts for themselves — or rather, for members of their own party. They draw them so safe that the general election becomes meaningless. The primary of the dominant party becomes the election. That puts the loudest, most passionate elements in that one party in the driver’s seat. From that point on, representatives who want to get elected are constantly kowtowing to the more extreme elements in their own party, and couldn’t care less about what moderates in their own party, or independents, and certainly not members of the opposition, want them to do.

And so we get entire bodies of elected officials — Congress being the most extreme example of the sickness — who are there not for the good of the country, but as agents of the most extreme elements in their respective parties. Instead of a deliberative process, you get a perpetual mudball fight, and government becomes dysfunctional.

(Cindi traces the problem back to the race-based districting that was the unintended consequence of the Voting Rights Act. That, too, is a problem, in that it trains representatives to think of themselves as representing only constituents of a particular race. Which can indeed lead to a type of extremism, and has done so in South Carolina. But a system in which drawing districts to protect incumbency is allowed by the courts is a broader problem. In any case, when legislators go through the process of choosing their constituents, which is what redistricting has become, they do both of those things — choose by race and by party.)

Cindi has long favored a creative solution to the problem:

The key is to return to multi-member districts — the norm before the Voting Rights Act essentially outlawed them because they shut out minority voters — but with a twist that prevents the dilution of minority voting strength while reclaiming the centrist, community-focused effect of the old multi-member districts.

Let’s take the Richland County Council for an example of how this would work. Under cumulative voting, candidates for all 11 council seats would run countywide. Voters would get 11 votes, like they did in the old multi-member districts. But they could divide the votes any way they wanted — casting one in each race, giving all 11 votes to a single candidate or doling them out in any other combination. Under a modified version called limited-transfer voting, voters would have just one vote, to cast in whichever race was most important to them. In other words, voters could work together across the county to essentially create the “district” they lived in.

It wouldn’t be practical to have statewide races for legislative seats, but we could make Richland County a four-seat Senate district, Lexington County a seven-seat House district. We could even make Richland and Lexington county an eight-seat Senate district.

These modified proportional systems have been promoted for years as a way to stop fixating on race in our elections and our government, but they also would empower all voters and give us a greater sense of ownership in our government, because elected officials wouldn’t dare to write off those they consider the partisan or racial or ideological minority in their district. The fact that county residents could vote for incumbents or challengers for any or all of the seven House seats in Lexington County means the representatives would need to appeal to all of them….

I’ve always thought the solution sounded a bit confusing. But I think it would be worth trying.

That said, cumulative voting would not solve all of our problems with extremism in SC. It would do nothing, directly, to address one of the examples Cindi cites in her column:

A Theatre de l’Absurde production starring a U.S. senator who could easily win a general election, no matter who his opponent, being seriously challenged in his party primary by obscure opponents who can most charitably be called political outliers…

Even without districts of any kind, radicalism has long been a feature of SC politics. The only cure for Lindsey Graham’s problem would be a reform that would have little chance of being enacted: Repeal the 17th Amendment, and have U.S. senators elected by the Legislatures again, as the Framers intended (House members were supposed to be elected by the people; senators were supposed to represent states, not bodies of voters). But of course, that would only work reliably after you do something to make the Legislature more moderate — something like what Cindi suggests.

How did YOU vote on strong mayor, and why?

This is just for our de jure city dwellers, as opposed to those of us who live in the de facto city, but don’t get to vote on its governance. (Or pay the taxes. Or get the services.)

So how did y’all vote? I’d like to compare my readership to the actual citywide vote.

Don’t tell us if you don’t want to. But if you don’t mind being up-front about it, unburden thyself: How did you vote, and why?

Firefighters join cops in backing strong-mayor reform

A group of neighborhood and community leaders gather to endorse strong-mayor on Monday.

A group of neighborhood and community leaders gather to endorse strong-mayor on Monday.

This just in from Adam Fogle with the strong-mayor campaign:

Columbia Firefighter’s Association backs Yes Vote on Strong Mayor

COLUMBIA, SC — The Columbia Firefighter’s Association announced on Tuesday that they are urging Columbia residents to vote yes for modern strong mayor form of government that will give the Mayor Columbia the authority needed to ensure public safety is a top priority.

Anthony Holloway, President of the Columbia Firefighters Association, explained his organization’s decision to back the strong mayor system:

Our city is at a crossroads and we have a tremendous decision to make today: change or more of the same.  We know first hand that the present system is holding our first responders back.  That’s why we hope Columbia voters will vote yes for a safer city and a more accountable government.

The fire service has been struggling with an attrition problem for years — a problem that is only getting worse.  Despite the genuine efforts of many in the fire department and the city government, most days there are fire trucks that are under-staffed or taken out of service simply because we don’t have enough firefighters on staff.

The attrition issue and many other concerns facing our city’s firefighters could have been resolved by now if the mayor had the authority to act. But under the present system, important decisions often get deferred and no one is held responsible for the consequences. A strong mayor system would fix that.

Mayor Benjamin is standing up and saying “I will be responsible.” That is a bold move that we fully support.

# # #

And so the firefighters join the Columbia Chapter of the Southern States Police Benevolence Association in favoring reform.


Rep. James Smith on why he’s for strong-mayor

Here’s a release I received today from Rep. James Smith:

There are many good people who care about the future of the City of Columbia on both sides of the debate about our city’s form of government.  Please allow me to tell you why I’m VOTING YES for a Strong Mayor tomorrowand I hope you will too.

Columbia is fortunate to be served by a dedicated and conscientious City Council and city staff who do their best to serve us every day.  But I believe our city is hindered by a system that lacks the fundamental elements of accountability that are the bedrock of our Democracy.JES_post_pic

We know this issue has been debated and discussed for the better part of two decades. We know this is the most popular form of government in South Carolina and the same model used by our state and federal governments.  And we know the only reason we have this chance to adopt a more effective and accountable Strong Mayor form of government is because over 12,000 individuals just like you who signed a petition and demanded the right to vote.

Some in opposition want to make this about politics and power.  But the simple truth is that City Council’s authority doesn’t change at all and a Strong Mayor would have no more power than the City Manager has right now.  The only difference is that you hire the Mayor and you can fire the Mayor.  The same can’t be said of the City Manager.

The Mayor answers to you and it doesn’t matter how many petitions you sign or how loudly you protest, the City Manager never will.  That’s the only difference… but it makes all the difference.

  • When the city comes to edge of bankruptcy and no one is held accountable, the system is broken.
  • When no one takes responsibility for years of deferred water/sewer maintenance resulting in EPA intervention and rate increases, the system is broken.
  • When the police chief can’t do his job without getting permission from an Assistant City Manager, City Manager, any number of department heads and a panel of politicians, the system is broken.
  • When the red tape keeps the Mayor you elected from doing what you elected him to, the system is definitely broken.

We need to fix it.

This is our chance to make a real difference, to step forward into a new and more effective government and build the Columbia we’ve always dreamed of.

This is our moment. Tomorrow, December 3, Vote YES for accountability. Vote YES for safety. Vote YES for change and for a greater Columbia.

We’ve been on hold long enough.  Let’s move forward together.

Your friend,

Representative James Smith

About that Gov Lite amendment

I received this email last week…

Long time reader of your blog.

Could you comment on your blog about the Lt. Governor Constitutional Amendment vote, set for next Tuesday? I’ve seen very little written about this, anywhere in the state.

I am generally for it, but for the life of me, I can’t figure out what the point of the job of Lt. Gov. if it passes. I’ve long thought if we have to have the office, why not fold up and combine the Sec. of State into the Lt. Gov’s office?

As it is, if this passes, the next Lt. Gov. will essentially be an elected staff member of the Governor’s office, with no role in Senate. I guess that is fine, especially after watching the candidates for the office two years ago throw themselves around the state, spending millions, for a part time job. But the amendment could be better thought out.

… and decided to wait for Cindi Scoppe to explain it, which she did quite adequately on Sunday, in what we used to call a “steak and steak” presentation — both an editorial endorsement, and a column that elaborates upon the same subject.

To answer the reader’s questions from my own perspective:

  • There isn’t any point to the lieutenant governor’s office, beyond being prepared to take over if the governor dies.
  • That’s different from the duties of the secretary of state.
  • There’s no reason for a member of the executive branch to preside over the Senate. Cindi explained very well Sunday how how nonessential the gov lite is in that role.

Basically, it has never made sense for the person a heartbeat away from the governor’s office not to have run on the same platform as the governor. It means that if the governor dies or otherwise leaves office, the position will be filled by someone who in no way shares the characteristics or goals or vision that the voters opted for in electing that governor.

Basically, this change gives the position a purpose it had lacked, and shows greater respect for the wishes of the people as expressed in elections.

It’s not a big deal. It’s really not much of a reform, nothing like what South Carolina needs. (It’s one of the least consequential things we pushed for with the Power Failure series in 1991, and ever since as an editorial topic.) But as Cindi said, it’s something. And more than that, it’s one tiny thing that the status quo worshipers in the Legislature have allowed us to vote on. If we say no to it, I assure you, they will wave that around as proof that we don’t really want reform in South Carolina.

Maybe this rhetorical approach is a GIRL thing…

Something struck me when I was reading this release just now from Mia Butler Garrick:


Today, we are just 43 days away from the Primary Election on June 12th and I need your help.  Right now in South Carolina, hundreds of special interest groups lobby the good ole boy network here at the State House to vigorously maintain control of the failed status quo that continues to plague our state.  They use their influence to ensure that SC remains at the bottom-of-the-best list by continuing to enact policies that wreak havoc on public education, hinder economic development and job creation and foster an environment of partisanship, nepotism and corruption at all levels of government.

I’m proud of the fact that the folks of District 79 always stand firmly against the good ole boys.  We stand boldly for jobs, for small businesses, for public education, for better infrastructure and safe schools and communities.  But more importantly, we stand firmly and boldly, together.  My campaign has never been about me.  It’s about what we can accomplish together for the future of South Carolina!

That’s why today, I’m asking all of you to step up just as you did two years ago, and show your support by volunteering now.

Election Day is Tuesday, June 12th.

Did it strike you that that sounded very much like the way the Nikki Haley presents herself to voters? As the lone beacon of transparency and virtue in a squall of self-dealing “good ol’ boys”?

Of course, the difference between them might be that Mia actually means it when she says those things. But the similarity in the general line of expression struck me…

Protesters take aim at leadership

The other night at the 100th episode of “Pub Politics,” Corey Hutchins was brandishing a wad of bills like the one you see above. He gave me one, which I stuck in my pocket. (I didn’t need cash right then, on account of the beer being free at this shindig.)

I thought at the time that he said he’d gotten it at an Occupy Columbia event (the room was noisy, so it’s hard to tell exactly what he said). But it’s more complicated than that. Here’s an excerpt from what he later wrote about it:

John Crangle stood on a Sumter Street sidewalk in the rain and pointed at some of the most powerful people in state government as they got out of nice cars and hurried toward the entrance of a tall building where a large political action committee was holding a fundraiser on the 20th floor.

He was part of a small protest group – about six people – holding signs and questioning the politicos as they arrived for the party. At issue was the nature of the fundraising group, the Palmetto Leadership Council, a non-candidate committee tied to S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell.

Crangle is the director of Common Cause of South Carolina, and his government watchdog group was partnering with members of Occupy Columbia and the South Carolina Progressive Network in picketing the affair.

They accused the PAC of shaking down corporations with interests before the Legislature at the tacit behest of the House Speaker, one of South Carolina’s most powerful politicians.

The PAC has raised nearly $1 million since it was created in 2004. That money has gone to fund candidates – mostly incumbents – and it also gave the state Republican Party $100,000.

The demonstrators argued that politicians like Harrell are using PACs such as the Palmetto Leadership Council as a way to skirt campaign finance limits. A corporation or individual or entity is only allowed to donate $1,000 to a candidate running for the S.C. House or Senate because of finance rules. If they want to donate more, though, they can donate to the PAC and the PAC can turn around and donate to the candidate…

Corey told me today that we should expect to hear more about this issue in the coming days. He said it looked like the MSM was getting interested.

It’s just not as adorable once you’re the governor

I keep meaning to spend some time …

Do you realize how often I start posts that way — wishing I would find the time for this or that? Well, I assure you that I mean it. There’s just not enough time in the day for all I’d like to get to. Never has been. Even when I was unemployed. Which reminds me of Nick Hornby’s brilliant riff on that point in About A Boy, in which a guy who does not work because he lives off the royalties of a novelty song his father wrote wonders to himself how anyone could possibly find the time in the day to work. Which I would link you to if Google books would let me see that page.

Where was I? Oh, yes…

I keep meaning to spend some time keeping track of other blogs in SC, but almost never do. It’s sort of important to keep up, since there’s just one of me, and other bloggers stay plugged into different things, and reading them would at least keep me up on the buzz. But the practice seems to fall somewhere behind reading The Guardian and The Times each day, which I’d really like to do, but don’t get around to either.

However, today when I woke up my PC, I glanced down at the little alerts in the corner from my feedreader, and clicked on this one before it disappeared forever (the Who-inspired headline, “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.” was what grabbed me), and found myself reading Earl Capps:

Here in the Blogland, we’ve often chuckled at the newcomers to politics who see everything in an extreme either-or context, defining everyone as either “establishment” or “reformer”.
Anyone who can take such a simplistic view of state politics is either very uninformed or intellectually dishonest, as those who’ve been in the state’s political arena for any amount of time (which the “children” call “insider establishment” types) learned a long time ago that it’s never black-and-white. Such types often end up resorting to gutter childish tactics when they find that it’s not enough to think you’re right and that you have to actually inform and persuade people to come around to your point of view (and typically do a lousy job of doing so)….

That Earl. He’s such an experience-stained cynic, isn’t he? But something in that resonated to the point that I posted a comment:

Hey, Earl…
“…the newcomers to politics who see everything in an extreme either-or context, defining everyone as either ‘establishment’ or ‘reformer’…”
A set of people to which our new governor belongs. And of course, no matter what SHE does or does not do, she unfailingly sees herself as a “reformer.”
Which would be amusing if she weren’t, you know, the governor…

And then I thought, Why am I spending time leaving comments on some other blog? Why don’t I say that on my own blog? So I just did.

Larry Koon, back in the day

Nikki’s naiveté (or perhaps I should say, apparent naiveté — although I suspect that what keeps her going is that she really does see herself as a Ms. Smith Goes to Washington sort), linked with her apparently sincere interest in transparency and other things I would put in the “reform” column (things I’ve advocated since practically before she was born), was so appealing when she ran against ol’ Larry Koon — the very caricature of the do-nothing ol’ boy who’s just there because he likes being a big shot — back in the day. But then, as she reached out for greater power, and continued to act like she was the champion of reform while leaving a trail of questionable practices in her wake, it just ceased to be as endearing as it had at first.