Thoughts on the voting process

  • Wednesday, May 14, 2014

On June 10, we will have state primary elections for both Democrats and Republicans; this we know for sure. What we don’t know, and what many are worried about, is will the actual voting and election process work honestly and smoothly the way its suppose to.

If either distant or recent history is any guide, don’t count on it.

Our state’s problems with elections and voting has been of two types: 1) expanding laws that have allowed more and more people to vote, and 2) the election system operations that made it more difficult – intentionally or unintentionally – for people to actually cast an honest ballot and have it honestly counted.

Let’s start with history. Whether some will admit it or not, our state has a long and ugly history of spending a lot of time, energy and even blood, keeping people from voting. In the Colonial Era, voting was limited to white males who owned substantial property – which in those days was probably less than 15 percent of the state’s population. In the next 350 years of so, we have gradually expanded the voter pool, but many times going backward with more restrictions as opposed to moving forward and following a consistent pattern of progress.

The first big change was a reduction in the property requirement and then after the Civil War the biggest expansion of all – at least for a while – came when African Americans got the right to vote.

But, by 1876, we began to revert to past history and virtually the entire black population was quickly excluded from voting. In the early 20th Century we moved forward again when women got the right to vote but it came about by the actions of the federal government and not SC state government.

The second wave of enfranchisement of African Americans came with the passage of the Voting Right Act of 1965; again it took a federal action that was fought long and loud by virtually every white politician and civic leader in the South at the time.

In recent years, the legal barriers to more people voting – and the attempts by many to make legal voters ineligible to vote – have continued with all sorts of new and different legal devices. The most recent is the so called “voter ID” law that makes it more difficult for some people to vote by requiring new and special forms of identification.

In trying to understand this controversy, two facts explain it all: 1) the majority of current voters who are negatively impacted by voter ID are old, African American and students (i.e. heavy Democratic voters) and 2) according to the SC Election Commission, there has not been a single case of voter fraud that voter ID purports to stop “in decades.”

The second set of problems relates to the voting system itself. Can candidates have fair access to being on the ballot? Can people vote in a reasonably amount of time? Are the ballots counted fairly and reported promptly?

These are all pretty basic questions about can we make democracy work properly or are we going to be more like a banana republic where the political power structure and corrupt insiders control the process for their own advantage.

Unfortunately, recent history here in South Carolina is pretty shameful about these issues as well.

Let’s start with the last election. Amazingly, almost 250 candidates were thrown off the ballot because of a legal technicality about where they filed a certain piece of paper. Though if affected both Democrats and Republicans, the apparent truth is that this was purely manipulation by corrupt insider politicians – of both parties – that had the effect of keeping challengers to incumbents off the ballot.

There are also dozens of other issues about how we run our elections that determine how well our democracy works. A recent authoritative study by the Pew Charitable Trust’ Election Initiative tells a pretty sorry story about South Carolina. The sturdy measured 17 different criteria for open, fair and efficient elections across all 50 states. This is what they found for South Carolina:

Our overall score was 65 percent out of 100 and we were ranked 25th overall among the states;

We are getting better as in the last two elections prior to 2012, we were in the bottom 25 percent of states and now we are at the middle;

The recent online voter registration procedures have been a big positive;

We do not require a post-election audit of returns;

People who have disabilities or illness issues have a very difficult time voting.

In short, the results are mixed. We continue to have real problems based on the legacy of racial discrimination and a system of partisan plantation politics that corrupts the system. On the other hand, we are making some progress.

Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and President of the SC New Democrats, an independent reform group founded by former Gov Richard Riley. Email him at phil@scnewdemocrats.org.

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