Thursday, March 31, 2011

Could South Carolina ever be empowered to recall officeholders?

This is called progress. States in the Midwest and the West built into their state constitutions at their founding various provisions allowing for the recall of elected officials, even judges. The bar is often high. To recall a state legislator, the process usually requires a good percentage of the last election's voters in that district to sign petitions. In the case of statewide officeholders, the law may require a certain percentage of voters' signatures from each Congressional district. In any case, the process is often time-limited -- 60 days, for example, to collect the requisite signatures -- and once the petitions are certified, a new election is scheduled.

But recalls were largely a product of the Progressive Eras in American history. South Carolina, like most of the original 13 states and commonwealths, never included such provisions in our constitution in part because our original constitution was written before any such thing as a Progressive Era, and in part because for much of our state history, black citizens outnumbered white citizens. Once the U.S. Constitution was amended to provide for black suffrage, there was great fear that black voters could control state government.

Of course, this is history, not opinion. Read any of several histories of South Carolina and you'll find that black lawmakers outnumbered white ones during "Radical" Reconstruction, but by 1900 -- thanks to the re-implementation of voting restrictions -- whites once again controlled matters. So even if there had been a notion to include recall provisions in any of our constitutions, it would have required white lawmakers to overlook their fear of black voters, and that never happened.

Jim Davenport of the Associated Press reports, however, that our lawmakers may be ready to move into the twentieth century after all. It's about time; the rest of the nation left the twentieth century behind for a new one more than a decade ago.

South Carolina voters could get power to remove officials from office and create laws through ballot box initiatives under legislation a Senate panel discussed Wednesday.

Senators delayed action on three bills that would greatly expand the public's power - and cut into power that now rests mostly with the Legislature. All would require changes to the state's constitution.

The petitions to force the removal of a statewide officer would require 15 percent of qualified voters signing to set up a removal vote. Changing the constitution or repealing laws or constitutional amendments would also begin with a petition signed by at least 10 percent of the voters.

I am a huge fan of this idea. And I have to admit that (a) I'm surprised the idea has advanced to the point of a Senate subcommittee discussion and (b) and I doubt it will advance further. Lawmakers of any stripe are loathe to give greater power to voters unless they've gauged that voters can be sufficiently manipulated. That goes double for lawmakers in South Carolina.

John Crangle, director of Common Cause of South Carolina, seems not to hold high hopes for the plan, either. And if it were to pass, he foresees ugly outcomes.

"What I think will happen in South Carolina if we adopt initiative referenda and recall is crackpot tax groups and special interest groups will try to wreck the tax structure of this state," Crangle said. He said lawmakers might face recall efforts driven by political opponents, not anything they've done wrong.

If we think out-of-state right groups have too much influence over our state now, wait until their unlimited dollars can pay for surgical strikes against individual lawmakers through recall, and they can pay for the ballot initiatives they want. So far, there's no organization or coalition that can fight the corporate dollars pouring into South Carolina behind right-wing interests today.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Mike Rose of Summerville, says he only wants to establish statewide authority to do what voters at the local level are already able to do through petitions.

This is worth watching, for good and bad.

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