SEPT. 26, 2014 -- With lots of attention on statewide races for governor and lieutenant governor, down-ballot races for constitutional offices are getting the short end of the stick. Again.
South Carolina votes every four years for seven constitutional officers other than the two at the top of the ticket: adjutant general, attorney general, commissioner of agriculture, comptroller general, secretary of state, state superintendent of education and state treasurer.
A SHORTER BALLOT
Calls for a shorter ballot -- and fewer constitutional officers to allow the state’s executive, the governor, to pick an executive team -- have been around for about 100 years, as highlighted in a model state constitution touted in 1921 by the National Municipal League. It urged constitutional reform across the country because of numerous problems:
“Among typical deficiencies were: (1) a poorly function legislature unrepresentative, understaffed, unresponsive, and a tool of special interests; (2) a weak executive with dispersed powers and little control over administration; (3) an uncoordinated judicial branch with politically oriented judges; (4) weak local governments with little or no powers of self-governance; (5) a long ballot by which many officers are elected without regard to personal qualifications; (6) cumbersome, unworkable constitutional amendment processes; and (7) inclusion of statutory material in the constitution that clutter its basic provisions and slowed any changes to established practices.”
-- Source: Cole Blease Graham, Jr., “The South Carolina Constitution: A Reference Guide,” 2007.
This creates, as University of South Carolina political science professor Mark Tompkins says, a “long ballot” - - a lot of choices for voters of candidates who generally struggle to get out their message and who can’t afford to advertise much.
“One of the reforms that we’re 80 years overdue is to shorten the ballot,” Tompkins said. “Voters don’t have the time and attention ... and it’s gotten worse, with the changing quality of the media, to figure out who these people are.”
Because of an increasingly apathetic electorate, most voters don’t do much homework, which makes party identification matter a lot more, observed College of Charleston political scientist Gibbs Knotts.
“I’m probably more of a fan of having a governor who has the ability to bring in a team and make appointments,” Knotts said. “Is it necessarily the best way now -- to pick somebody who can win a campaign versus an executive who can appoint somebody through interviews and an executive process?”
This year, voters have a chance to make a shorter ballot because there’s a constitutional amendment to make South Carolina’s adjutant general, the only one in the country still elected, become an appointed position.
Still, there are a lot of candidates on the ballot. Here’s a quick thumbnail of the races that might not yet have grabbed your attention.
Secretary of State
Ginny Deerin (D) vs. Mark Hammond (R)
Deerin, a first-time statewide candidate from Sullivan’s Island, has gotten media attention for complaining about how Hammond, the incumbent, uses his state car to drive between his Spartanburg home and Columbia office.
“He doesn’t see that that’s a waste of tax dollars,” said Deerin, who surprised many Democrats by securing the endorsement of the conservative Club for Growth. “I don’t think he sees it as being wrong. It’s not illegal, but in my view it’s wrong.”
Hammond, who has no campaign web site, counters that he has been elected three times as a statewide official, which means he works across the state. As far as driving back and forth from work in a state vehicle, he notes that he has, per state regulation, claimed more personal mileage than any other constitutional office -- some 23,000 miles in the most recent year. That mileage is “treated as income and I pay taxes on that,” he said, noting that whether the secretary of state should have a state or personal car is a matter of opinion.
Substantively, the candidates disagree how the office should be modernized. Hammond claims that the most important forms used by his office -- some 44 out of about 150 -- are available online in one fashion or another. Deerin says only four forms can be completed in full on the Secretary of State’s web site and that the others don’t link in a user-friendly manner to the state’s Business One Stop site.
“There are 139 things -- processes -- that you can do in the Secretary of State’s office and of those, only four can you complete online [on the site],” Deerin said. “In today’s digital world, that’s just shameful and wasteful.”
Hammond countered, “To say it’s four applications is just ridiculous.” He later added, “I think that’s splitting hairs. We have limited resources. I can’t understand how she’s going to provide all these services [online] and still cut the budget.”
He added that voters should pick him to remain in office because of the strides made to modernize services, such as creating searchable databases for boards, commissions and notaries. He also pointed out that he would continue tough enforcement of the state law that oversees solicitations by charities to protect state donors.
Deerin, a non-profit and political fundraiser over the years known for her work with Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, said she wants to implement fixes and changes to the Secretary of State’s office to save money and provide better services.
“The Secretary of State’s office is kind of like how the DMV [Department of Motor Vehicles] was 12 years ago,” she said. “It’s just unbelievably inefficient and ineffective. I want to do for the Secretary of State’s office what we’ve done with the DMV.”
State superintendent of education
During the primary season, the superintendent of education’s race got a lot of attention because both major parties had contested primaries. Emerging from the scrums were Spearman, a former state legislator who switched to the GOP and has run the S.C. Association of School Administrators for the last few years, and Thompson, a former college dean. [NOTE: We’ll provide a more in-depth look at this race in our Oct. 17 issue.]
Ed Murray (Am.) vs. Molly Spearman (R) vs. Tom Thompson (D)
Spearman entered the race late, reportedly to counterbalance conservative and tea-party forces seeking to get their candidates as the GOP nominee. By beating Sally Atwater, wife of the late GOP strategist Lee Atwater, she secured her place as the candidate with the broadest experience in the race.
As reported earlier by Statehouse Report, Spearman has called for an overhauling of the state’s public school education system, taking it away from a style more suited for the state’s agrarian and manufacturing past to focusing more on technology-rich jobs of the future. Her top three planks include safe schools with an emphasis on combating bullying, giving more public education options to families and holding schools to “local” standards, as opposed to national “Common Core” standards.
Thompson, a former dean at S.C. State University, has said he would change the focus of the state’s curriculum to not only serve the high-achieving kids headed for elite colleges, but those near the bottom of the attainment curve headed toward jobs in the trades. He has said it was critical to address the educational needs of students “trapped” in the middle by giving them a series of introductions to different experiences so they better find their best fit in the world.
In the coming weeks, we’ll provide a look at several races on statewide ballots on Nov. 4:
- TODAY: Down ballot races
- OCT. 3: Lt. governor
- OCT. 17: State superintendent
- OCT. 24: Governor
Murray, running as a candidate in the new American Party, is a teacher and administrator with 25 years of experience. In a recent Facebook post he said, “This election is critical for it determines the experiences that another generation of young students are going to have in the halls of our public schools. We cannot afford to allow the status quo in politics to maintain the status quo in education.”
Three other constitutional races haven’t caught on much at all, which Tompkins and Knotts agreed gave a big advantage to the incumbent Republicans.
Parnell Diggs (D) vs. Alan Wilson (R)
For the past few months, Wilson has been a mainstay in headlines for his roles in investigating now-suspended House Speaker Bobby Harrell as well as fighting over issues ranging from Obamacare and gay marriage to human trafficking and immigration.
Governing magazine’s Lou Jacobson, who looks at races across the country, rates Wilson to be a safe Republican: “Wilson, elected in 2010, has avoided the kind of flak that has made GOP Gov. Nikki Haley's bid for a second term something short of a cakewalk even though she's running in a solidly Republican state. Wilson looks quite secure.”
Diggs, a Garden City lawyer who is president of the National Federation of the Blind of South Carolina, says he’s running to be attorney general to build “a fairer, more ethical Office of the Attorney General, and for taking partisan politics out of the administration of justice.” He says he’ll work hard to fight the state’s “F” rating for the risk of public corruption, refrain for spending tax dollars fighting Obamacare, refrain from defending laws that undermine voting rights and more.
Commissioner of Agriculture
Emile DeFelice (Am.) vs. David Edmond (UC) vs. Hugh Weathers (R)
DeFelice, who ran for the seat as a Democrat eight years ago, is a candidate for the American Party this year. A former pork producer, he believes the state Department of Agriculture should be reduced or eliminated, particularly because of marketing the agency pays for.
Edmond, a Lexington County native who is a semi-retired minister, wants to encourage farmers to diversify and help attract businesses that make alternative fuels. He does not appear to have a web site.
Weathers, a third-generation dairy farmer who was appointed commissioner in 2004 and has been elected twice since, is running on his successes, including growth of the rural agribusiness economy and more. He says he’s focused also on creating the next generation of farmers and crops.
Richard Eckstrom (R) vs. Kyle Herbert (D)
Eckstrom, who has no campaign Web site, has been comptroller general since 2002. From 1994-98, he served as state treasurer. Eckstrom touts being a champion of fiscal restraint, accountability and transparency as the state’s “chief accountant.”
Herbert, a certified public accountant who works at Palmetto Health, says Eckstrom hasn’t acted accountable in his years as comptroller general with “numerous allegations of ethical misconduct that range from misuse of campaign funds to using state own assets [sic] for personal use.”
Finally on the ballot are two candidates with no opposition: Adjutant General Bob Livingston (R), who may be the last person ever to campaign for the position, and State Treasurer Curtis Loftis (R).
Andy Brack is editor and publisher of Statehouse Report. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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