S.C. Statehouse Report
Sunday, Oct. 31, 2004
VIEW: http://www.statehousereport.com/columns/04.1031.vote.htm

COMMENTARY

Maybe it's time to look at new voting methods
By Andy Brack
SC Statehouse Report

OCT. 31, 2004 - - With many eyes focused on Tuesday’s local, state and national elections, it may be a good time to look at how we elect people to office and whether it’s time for some changes.

In South Carolina, registered voters go to the polls on the first Tuesday in November and cast ballots for their choice for offices. Generally, they vote for a Republican, Democrat or third-party candidate. Some municipalities and school districts allow voters to pick candidates on a non-partisan basis. In general, the candidate who gets the most votes on the day of the General Election wins - - even if that person gets less than 50 percent of the vote.

PROGRAMMING NOTE

Statehouse Report's Andy Brack will help to provide election commentary Tuesday night with Walter Edgar on the stations of SCETV's Educational Radio. Coverage begins at 8 p.m. Tune in.

Because the two main political parties are so powerful, most candidates run as Republicans or Democrats. Those candidates are picked in partisan primaries earlier in the year. The way the current system is set up, most contested General Election races offer two candidates because third-party candidates have a hard time getting traction with voters.

So all in all, the system generally is skewed to provide voters a limited choice in candidates. Meanwhile, voter turnout over the years has eroded. This year’s election, however, seems to be countering the trend due to more people registered - - especially in the late stages of the election season - - in South Carolina and nationally.

Regardless, critics of the current way elections are held say there are compelling reasons to consider changes. For example, the primary system results in a lot of costly runoffs. Minorities have a harder time in the current system getting elected. Gerrymandered districts polarize electorates. Campaigns cost more in the current system, which discourages challengers from taking on incumbents. With generally only two candidates opposing each other in contested races, the politics of personal destruction and attack are on the rise.

There are, however, a number of ideas being explored across the country that South Carolina lawmakers might want to consider to improve the way we hold elections:

Instant runoff elections. In democratic elections from San Francisco to Australia, voters use a system that allows them to rank several candidates in contested races. The top two vote-getters in a race are tallied and if one does not have a majority, the candidate with the fewest number of votes is dropped. Ballots of supporters of that candidate are recounted and allocated to their second choice for the seat. The process continues until one candidate gets the majority.

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Same-day registration. In states like Minnesota, residents can register to vote as late as election day and still vote. This is a tool effectively used to stimulate more voter participation, which many agrees makes the democracy healthier, but it has to be closely watched to deter fraud. (You might remember former Gov. Jesse Ventura. He effectively used same-day registration, in part, to win as an independent in 1998).

Mail-in voting. Some places, such as Oregon, allow voters to cast ballots by mail for a month before election day. The technique has improved turnout, but candidates often don’t like the system because it makes it harder for them to get out their messages. Instead of concentrating much of their volleys on the last two weeks, they have to extend the length of pointed campaign messages.

Change the voting day. Voting on Tuesday, a work day, is a pain for many, even though your employer has to let you off work to vote. Many suggest changing to a weekend voting date - - or a several-day period for voting - - would boost turnout and interest because it would be easier.

Online voting. Talk about convenience. If voters could click buttons through the Internet and vote, life would be much easier for many.

At this point, South Carolina lawmakers see no major reform efforts ahead, in part, because there are no proposals in the offing. House Judiciary Chairman Jim Harrison says, however, that if proposals are offered, lawmakers will have hearings and give them serious consideration.

Look for something serious next April when the League of Women Voters of South Carolina is expected to present findings of an ongoing study that’s looking at ideas for alternate election systems.

In the meantime, we’re stuck with the system we have. Make the most of it on Tuesday.

Other news doesn't provide as much comfort:

Unemployment is up. South Carolina's unemployment rate rose to 6.9 percent in September. Tourism and construction jobs were down, but some seasonal jobs were up.

Not reflected in job loss figures for September were two just-announced plant closings. Delta Woodside in Piedmont said it would close a mill by Nov. 20, which would be put 361 people out of work. Nearby in Oconee County, Piedmont Home Textile Corp. said it would close, which would leave 122 without work by the end of the year. Both closures reportedly are due to foreign imports, a new wave of which is expected to flood the market in January when quotas are lifted.

Fuel prices are up. Anybody knows gasoline is now above $2 per gallon in many places. But energy experts predict home heating costs to rise this winter because natural gas futures are up more than 300 percent and coal prices are expected to rise stiffly too.

As one top-level energy executive recently noted, higher energy prices might dampen growth from higher sales and a slightly rebounding economy. Ryan's Restaurant CEO Charles Way told reporters recently he anticipated a difficult business environment to continue because higher oil prices would sap consumer confidence.

Hefner agreed that consumer confidence might go down if gas prices hit $3 per gallon, but that wasn't likely. If prices went, say, to $2.10 or $2.20, people would continue to spend because Americans see travel as a necessity. He predicted consumers likely would continue to spend - - even if they had to go deeper in debt - - unless things got real bad.

The unpredictability of the economy presents a challenge Wednesday to the state Board of Economic Advisors, which is expected to present an economic forecast that is the first step in next year's state budget-making process.

If the BEA is too conservative, lawmakers will face another lean budget year and potentially cut more services, which many already believe are on life-support. If forecasters paint too rosy of a picture, lawmakers may face an easier time in 2005, but have shortfalls to deal with down the road.


RECENT COMMENTARY

McLEMORE'S WORLD
10/31: The new Halloween

The latest from cartoonist Bill McLemore:


LEARN MORE DAILY

The best way to get South Carolina news is to augment your morning paper and TV show with SC Clips, a daily executive news summary compiled from more than 30 state newspaper and TV sources. It's delivered every business day and is packed with news of statewide impact, politics, business and more. Subscriptions are affordable at $30 per month -- and less for business subscribers. More: SC Clips.


SOUTH CAROLINA SCORECARD

Here's a "thumbs up" and "thumbs down" related to various political events from the past week:

Thumbs up

Voter registration. It's good news for the process that there are more than 300,000 more voters registered than a couple of years ago.

Thumbs down

Wingate. Thumbs down to GOP Senate candidate Ken Wingate for not denouncing an out-of-state group that's trying to push its narrow anti-public school agenda in the Senate 22 race.

Sanford. It seems odd that the governor is pushing his income tax reduction plan in the last week of campaigning when members of his party are trying to get their messages through to voters. Sanford's plan would weaken the state's tax structure.


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