The SC Progressive Network‘s Democracy Project is a campaign to address the critical condition of representative democracy in the Palmetto State.
- We have the nation’s least competitive elections, with fewer than 14 percent of registered voters choosing 131 of the 170 legislators. In 2016, just 8.6 percent of SC’s 3 million registered voters elected 47 percent of the General Assembly in the Republican primary.
- Seventy-seven percent of the legislative races have only one major party name on the general election ballot. Voters in just 39 of 170 political districts have more than one major party candidate on their general election ballot.
In a recent nationwide study, The National Institute on Money in State Politics used three measures to determine how competitive state legislative races are. The “Competitiveness Index” measured the monetary spread between winners and losers, the success rate of incumbents and whether candidates had opposition. Using these three measures, South Carolina has the least competitive elections in the nation, with only 6 percent of the 170 legislative seats offering a real choice between candidates.
The primary cause is the political gerrymandering – and party switching – that created majority-white and majority-black districts. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited racial gerrymandering but allowed political gerrymandering that federal courts are just recently recognizing as racially discriminatory. The US Justice Department allowed political gerrymandering, arguing that a discriminatory impact isn’t illegal if not driven by racial hostility but by a drive for political power.
The US Supreme Court ruled in 2012 struck sections of the Voting Rights Act that required extra scrutiny of voting districts in states that have history of racial discrimination (like South Carolina), claiming they were no longer necessary. For the first time since 1965, the ruling opened up the question of political gerrymandering’s racial impact in state and federal courts.
An example of racial gerrymandering is found in the creation of our state’s 7th congressional district due to our population increase in the 2010 Census. Before 2010, South Carolina had six congressional districts, and one-third of the population was comprised of people of color. Representative democracy would dictate that the state should have had two congressional districts that are “contestable” by people of color. A district is contestable with a 41 to 45 percent nonwhite population. In 1992, the 6th district was redrawn to be a majority minority district with a 56 percent black population resulting in the state’s first black member of US Congress since 1897.
The 2010 redistricting by the state’s Republican-dominated legislature packed the 6th district with 64 percent blacks, and added the new 7th congressional district with a 31 percent black voting population. The state’s other districts have between 21 and 27 percent black voters.
Many plans were submitted from various Democratic and black organizations that called for two majority-minority districts. It is worth noting that the Network supported the only congressional redistricting maps submitted that did not create any majority-black districts. Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter submitted maps that showed the 6th district 46 percent and the new 7th district 44 percent. Cobb-Hunter argued that competitive districts yield more democratic representation than majority black or white districts. Unfortunately, black, as well as Democratic, representation in the US House is down from 16 percent to 14 percent.
The dominance of money and power are the root cause of our failing democracy. Election for our General Assembly have doubled in cost since the SCPN first introduced legislation for public financing in 2001. The average cost for winning House seats is approaching $40,000, and a Senate seat is more than $150,000. Campaign consultants and paid media drive ever longer and more expensive campaigns.
The primary effects of political gerrymandering are the coarsening of politics and a refusal to compromise for the greater good. Since candidates win with a tiny fraction of registered voters in the primary, they play to the most extreme fears of their party’s base. Since Ronald Reagan pronounced that government was the problem, not the solution of our problems, we have seen Republican candidates campaign on being against government, taxes and compromise. Reagan also adopted the “Southern Strategy” of the new Jim Crow that identified welfare and law and order as substitute targets for overt racism.
The effects of our politicians’ opposition to government can be seen in our deteriorating quality of life. SC ranks 50th in education, road and dam maintenance, 45th in wages, and 42nd in tax burden and life expectancy.
Fixing our broken democracy is a long-term challenge. We need a citizens’ redistricting commission to draw competitive political districts that encourage compromise and a commitment to the general welfare. The problem here is that the majority party of the legislature is responsible for drawing new districts and it is unlikely that they will voluntarily draw lines that threaten their control. Campaign cash and gerrymandering have created a political culture that allows our public policies to be driven by private profit. Our failed democracy keeps our state at the bottom of the industrial world’s standards of living.
We have harbored the hope that federal courts will find that political gerrymandering is unconstitutional. That hope has been put on hold with the election of the current administration.
While we will be pushing legislation for a redistricting plan that puts voters in charge, we will also introduce a resolution for a state Constitutional Amendment on the 2020 general election ballot to return political power to the people. We will be organizing a bipartisan campaign to let voters chose the politicians based on Article 1 of the State Constitution: “All political power is vested in and derived from the people only, therefore, they have the right at all times to modify their form of government.”
If we can’t legislate or litigate our way to representative democracy, we’re going to have to organize our way. We have to educate and agitate around the problems that working South Carolinians share. We have to build a movement across race and class lines that is driven by the recognition that money has corrupted our system and that we’re all better off when we’re all better off.
The SC Progressive Legislative Caucus has introduced five bills prepared by the SC Progressive Network’s Research and Policy Institute to reduce the corrupting influence of money in state policies.
The timing of this legislative package is critical, as South Carolina’s ethics scandals stretch into an election year. With public appetite for cleaning house at a record high, the Network is prepared to advance common-sense bills for reforms to make government more transparent and accountable.
Special election restitution
H-4502 would make politicians removed from office due to a criminal conviction pay for the special elections to replace them. Progressive Caucus member Sen. Mike Fanning (D-Fairfield) filed (S-533) bill in the Senate during the last session. (Watch a clip of him explaining the legislation.) Caucus Chair Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, the bill’s primary House sponsor, says that the flood of campaign cash to legislators who face no opposition has contributed to corruption.
Each special election to replace incumbent legislators removed from office due to a conviction costs taxpayers around $120,000 for a House seat; and $180,000 for a Senate seat. The state only pays for 40% of the cost, leaving counties paying the balance out of their underfunded budgets. To replace convicted attorneys general or other constitutional officers costs about $30,000 if a special session of the legislature is called.
Public financing of candidates for SC attorney general
As South Carolina’s corruption scandal widens, the time is ripe to renew our call for publicly financed elections, beginning with the attorney general. H-4498 calls for giving qualified candidates for attorney general who refuse all private donations a publicly financed grant to run for office.
State Attorney General Alan Wilson took maximum campaign contributions in his last race from both the McNair firm and SCANA. He took more than $500,000 from lawyers and off-duty lobbyists in his last three campaigns. After his 2014 campaign, Wilson returned $3,500 to former House Speaker Bobby Harrell after Harrell was indicted, and Wilson had to refund about $50,000 in donations that exceeded contribution limits.
Public financing would allow candidates to run for attorney general without taking any campaign contributions from individuals or corporations that may later need to be investigated or indicted. In 2001, then Republican Party Chairman Henry McMaster understood the problems inherent in allowing the state’s top law enforcement officer to rely on private cash to run for office. McMaster told Gov. Hodge’s Campaign Finance Reform Commission that the race for attorney general is the one elected office that should be publicly financed.
H-4499 calls for a state constitutional amendment to establish public financing for the office of state attorney general. Should the legislature agree to place this amendment on the general election ballot, and the citizens vote in favor of public financing for our top law enforcement officer, and the legislature adopts the amendment, the practice can not be overturned by future legislative votes.
Banning campaign donations by regulated utilities
H-4501 would prohibit regulated utilities from making campaign contributions to the candidates and politicians who are responsible for regulating them. An example is the 2007 legislation that allowed SCE&G to charge ratepayers in advance for nuclear reactors that have since been abandoned.
“The power company paid former Gov. McNair’s law firm to write the bill,” Cobb-Hunter said. Then both the utility and the law firm made $60,000 of strategic, bipartisan donations to legislators. “They even gave me a donation,” she said. The bill passed both bodies without a public hearing or debate. The Senate didn’t even take a roll call vote.
Public transparency and accounting fee for campaign donations
H-4500 would place a small fee on all campaign contributions that would fund an automated public disclosure system and generate money for attorney general candidates who want to opt into a publicly financed campaign.
The State Ethics Commission is woefully underfunded, short-staffed, and has a public disclosure web site that is opaque. Furthermore, candidates make unintentional mistakes – as well as intentional – in filing. We’ve crafted a low-cost, high-tech solution to multiple problems.
Support in the legislature for the Restitution Act and the transparency fee has been positive. Public financing of the AG’s office will be a harder sell, but is not impossible – especially given the current political climate. Passing an independent redistricting bill is unrealistic, but we intend to gain ground organizing around both wins and losses. Few SC citizens realize that 77% of our 170 legislators are elected in the primary with the support of less than 9% of registered voters. The 125 legislators who won their seats with no general election opposition raised $8.2 million. Not surprisingly, the legislators indicted for corruption are among those with lots of money and no competition.
SCPN has launched a Democracy Project, a statewide grassroots civics education and engagement campaign. You can find a toolkit for activists at scpronet.com. Our PowerPoint presentations can be retooled with data relevant to specific audiences, depending on their district or area of interest.
It is clear that reforming our democracy in South Carolina is a long-term proposition. It will require base building, leadership development, and a heavy dose of educating and agitating. In the words of Modjeska Simkins, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is no sitting down time.” Let us take advantage of the opportunities this moment in history affords.
Litigation: Crangle v. McMaster
SCPN Government Relations Director John Crangle filed a lawsuit in May seeking to determine the governor’s authority to appoint temporary replacements for legislators indicted for criminal offenses. The State Supreme Court has been asked to accept original jurisdiction of the case and is expected to rule by the end of July. Crangle’s state senator was indicted on corruption charges in March. The SCPN executive director’s state house representative was indicted in May and the former House majority leader from Charleston was indicted on 30 counts of ethic violations last December. These three seats remain vacant, as the governor is awaiting eventual conviction, or acquittal, on the charges. The lawsuit argues that Crangle et. al. are deprived of representation and constituent services for the many months their representative is suspended.