MY TURN: League focuses on ethics reform, redistricting, judges

Article II of the U.S. Constitution includes language related to reapportionment.

By Julie Hussey and JoAnne Day, special to Statehouse Report |  The central focus of the League of Women Voters nationally and in South Carolina is “making democracy work.” We are especially concerned with issues that relate to how our government is organized, how it functions and how accountable it is to the citizens it serves. Based on this, we have identified some priorities for the 2017 session of the General Assembly.

Ethics reform remains a priority

In a representational democracy, citizens must have confidence our public officials are working for us and not for their own benefit. While most of our public officials are dedicated public servants, our laws cannot make this assumption. The League of Women Voters of S.C. believes organizations, which exist largely to support or oppose candidates or ballot measures, should disclose who is donating to them and how much these individuals are donating.

An effective law that covered these groups was in place in South Carolina for many years, but a recent federal court ruling determined that the definition of “committee” was too vague and therefore unenforceable. Fixing this definition would once more allow us to know, as we did for years, who is contributing to such organizations as party caucuses as well as committees established solely to support or oppose a single candidate or ballot measure. We are looking for a bill from Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Columbia, to address this very important issue.

We are also following Florence GOP Sen. Hugh Leatherman’s dark money bill in the Senate and Columbia Democratic Rep. James Smith’s parallel bill in the House.  Their bills look to require organizations focused on issues to disclose their funding sources.

Now is the time to think about reapportionment

Reapportionment is the process our state senators and representatives use to define our state and U.S. House of Representatives (congressional) voter districts. State legislators currently draw these lines and have done so in such a way that the general election means virtually nothing in most South Carolina districts. When legislators choose their voters, voters are left with no choice at all after the partisan primaries. By choosing voters who are “like them,” legislators are less compelled to listen to a wide range of voices when considering their positions and are more supportive of polarization in our already divided state and country.

The state will not be redrawing its lines until the 2020 census data has been compiled, but it is not too early to get an independent process in place. Reps Laurie Funderburk (D-Kershaw) and Gilda Cobb-Hunter (D-Orangeburg) prefiled a bill in the House calling for an independent effort to draw these lines; Sen.  Nikki Setzler (D-Lexington) has more recently filed a bill in the Senate. The House and Senate versions differ in specifics but seek the same goal. Proposing an independent effort is easy, but getting a process in place will be hard. Removing anything from legislative control is one of the most difficult things to attempt in our General Assembly.

This will be especially difficult because we are asking legislators to give up a degree of control over their own election prospects.  Getting these bills and their intent to the governor’s desk will not happen without intense and persistent public support.

The selection of judges is back in our spotlight

The good news is that South Carolinians do not elect our judges and tie their selection to the pressures associated with campaign finance and donor relationships that plague our other branches of government.

The bad news is that our General Assembly is not just responsible for electing our judges, but it dominates every stage of the judicial selection process. The League of Women Voters believes reforming the Judicial Merit Selection Commission (JMSC) to include only non-legislative appointees allows a wider range of voices in selection of the judiciary and shows greater respect for the separation of powers that is central to our Constitution.  Reforming the JMSC appointees still leaves final votes in the hands of the General Assembly while introducing a measure of independence into the process. Rep. Tommy Pope (R-York)  has introduced a bill to make this important change.

Adding more independent voices to judicial selection is important, but so is adequate funding for the Judiciary to have the operations budget it needs to do their job. The League supports the Judiciary budget as proposed by Chief Justice Donald Beatty.

If you are also interested in these issues, amending the Base Load Review Act, health care, education, the environment and voting rights, we invite you to join us as an advocate, supporter or member.  You can join a local League in Charleston, Clemson, Columbia, Darlington, Georgetown, Greenville, Hilton Head Island/Bluffton, Horry County, Spartanburg or Sumter or find out more at www.LWVSC.org. Together we can Make Democracy Work.

Julie Hussey of Charleston and JoAnne Day of Columbia are co-presidents of the League of Women Voters of South Carolina.

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