Statewide Voting Rights Lacking in S.C.

October 19, 2012

Investigative Reports

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Ballot BoxPeople usually vote for politicians who share their views, hoping to see the changes that the candidates promised.

In some states, such as California, Massachusetts and Alaska, voters also can have more of a direct say in what becomes law by petitioning to vote on legislation passed by their respective state legislatures.

But South Carolina isn’t one of those states. The Palmetto State prohibits such voting powers, known as referendums, on a statewide level except for constitutional amendments. Referendums here generally are allowed only at the county and municipal levels.

Thirteen years ago, the General Assembly voted to ban video poker in the state but made it contingent upon a statewide referendum. That vote never happened because the S.C Supreme Court in October 1999 said the state constitution didn’t allow it, upholding the Legislature’s ban on video poker.

The S.C. Constitution calls for a representative state government – elected officials making laws – instead of a direct democracy. In a direct democracy, the public is given the power to legislate directly through referendums; initiatives, which involve petitioning for new laws with or without legislative approval; and recalls of elected officials.

But South Carolina mandates through its constitution that the Legislature – not the people – has the lawmaking authority.

Most southern states don’t allow referendums at the state level, with 23 states in total banning it, according to the Initiative and Referendum Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization at the University of Southern California.

Contacted by The Nerve, S.C. Supreme Court representatives said they couldn’t comment on the matter, and State Election Commission officials said they didn’t have an opinion on it.

But critics say that not allowing statewide referendums siphons voters’ rights, ceding power to the government.

“There are no favorable things (with) not having the right to vote on policies,” said Douglas Bruce, a former Colorado House member, when contacted by The Nerve.

“What’s favorable about slavery?” Bruce continued. “What’s favorable of being only able to cast a virtually meaningless vote? You can only vote on political personalities. You can’t vote on political policy.”

Bruce added that referendums aren’t allowed because it promotes trust in representative government.

“Well, I say don’t trust them,” he said. “That’s one of the ways to keep government in balance by being able to override government. Who’s in charge? We the people or we the politicians? Limited government is the definition of freedom.”

Prohibiting statewide referendums can be very restrictive, says Jim Gordon, director of a South Carolina voting-rights organization called Voters in Charge.

“It’s political power,” Gordon told The Nerve. (Legislators) don’t want to give political power to voters. Truth is, we have a failed system, I think.

“The legislators and the court basically work together to ensure that voters can’t issue local/state ordinances.”

According to the National Taxpayers Union, based in Alexandria, Va., voters from 12 states have taken advantage of popular referendums, deciding on various tax proposals placed on the ballot.

Pete Sepp, NTU’s executive vice president, said voting on a ballot measure is different than casting a vote for a political candidate.

“With measures, a vote can make a great deal of difference in many ways,” he told The Nerve. “With public officials, you get rhetoric. Measures can’t go back on their words. It’s something you can read right there and decide if it appeals to you or not.”

Reach Legette at (803) 254-4411 or derek@thenerve.org.