Voters’ Rights Bills Introduced

December 16, 2010

Investigative Reports

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The NervePower to the people.

That’s what Sen. Mike Rose, R-Dorchester, says he’s aiming to boost in sponsoring or co-sponsoring several joint resolutions filed this month that would give voters the right to:

 

 

  • Initiate new state laws or constitutional amendments, or repeal existing laws (S. 97);
  • Recall local or state officials from office during their terms (S. 97, S. 181); and
  • Decide every 20 years, starting in 2012, whether to rewrite the S.C. Constitution through a constitutional convention. The last constitutional convention was in 1895. (S. 188, S. 189).

All of the proposals would have to be approved through constitutional amendments, which require a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate, and a majority popular vote in a statewide election.

Sen. David Thomas, R-Greenville, has prefiled similar joint resolutions (S. 67, S. 74) dealing with initiative, referendum and recall rights. On the House side, Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Richland, is sponsoring a joint resolution (H. 3008) that would give voters statewide initiative and referendum rights.

The Legislature reconvenes on Jan. 11.

“Why can’t we give power to the people?” Rose, an attorney, told The Nerve when contacted last week. “Why don’t we let the people decide?”

Said Ballentine when contacted this week by The Nerve: “People are saying, ‘We want common-sense things done in the General Assembly,’ and we’re not getting it done. It’s a problem that the 170-member General Assembly is not doing the will of the four million-plus people in this state.”

But John Crangle, an attorney and director of the nonprofit government watchdog group Common Cause of South Carolina, isn’t a fan of the latest legislative proposals.

Citing California as an example, Crangle said he believes that giving voters initiative, referendum or recall powers likely will lead to “astroturfing,” or special-interest actions disguised as broad-based, grassroots efforts. The term refers to Astro Turf, a brand of artificial grass.

“If there is any state in the United States that is ungovernable, it’s California,” Crangle told The Nerve last week, referring to the influence of special-interest groups.

Counters Rose about his proposals, “It’s not a California-style referendum or initiative.”

Rose, who has introduced similar initiative-referendum legislation in previous years, isn’t optimistic that his current proposals will pass the Legislature next year, noting, “It’s never been even been sent to a subcommittee because of the unilateral dislike by the Judiciary Committee chairman.”

Committee Chairman Sen. Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston and the Senate president pro tempore, did not respond to written and phone messages last week from The Nerve.

Twenty-four states, including Arkansas, Florida and Mississippi, have initiative or referendum procedures to enact or repeal state laws or constitutional amendments, though the provisions vary by state, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Eighteen states allow the recall of state officials.

Under current S.C. law, voters have petition power to propose any ordinance, except one dealing with taxation or appropriation matters, before county or municipal governments; if rejected by the local governments, the proposal is placed on the ballot for a popular vote.

Local voters also have the right to seek the repeal of publicly issued bonds that require a “pledge of the full faith and credit” of the local government.

But Jim Gordon, state coordinator for a nonprofit voters’ rights advocacy organization, Voters-in- Charge, told The Nerve last week that the law is weak because it requires too high a percentage of petition signatures.

For county ordinances, the threshold is at least 15 percent of qualified voters in the county; for municipalities, it’s at least 15 percent of the registered voters at the last regular municipal election.

Rep. Ballentine last week introduced a bill (H. 3009) that would lower the threshold to 5 percent. Gordon said his organization asked Ballentine to introduce the bill, and that similar legislation is expected to be introduced in the Senate next year.

“The goal is to make it easy enough for grassroots groups to use it,” Gordon said.

Besides lowering the percentage of required petition signatures, Ballentine’s bill would allow voters to put local proposals directly on the ballot with the proper number of signatures.

“It all goes back to giving the average citizen of South Carolina the chance of being a part of the process,” Ballentine said.

Under S. 97, which is sponsored by Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, and co-sponsored by Rose, voters who want a new state law or constitutional amendment enacted by initiative or referendum must first submit the wording of the proposal for review by the S.C. Attorney General’s Office, Office of State Budget and Legislative Council.

Circulated petitions must contain the valid signatures of at least 10 percent of the qualified voters in the last statewide general election.

If the General Assembly convenes more than 30 days before a ballot proposition is voted on, the proposed legislation is sent to the Legislature, which could either accept or reject the measure without any changes. If approved, the proposal would become law and would not be subject to a governor’s veto.

If lawmakers rejected the proposal, it would be placed on the ballot in a statewide election and would pass with a simple majority vote. The same process would apply in repealing existing laws.

The resolution also would allow recall elections for state or local officials for “physical or mental lack of fitness, incompetence, violation of his oath of office, official misconduct, or conviction of a felony offense enumerated in the current statutory laws of this state.”

The number of petition signatures necessary to force a recall election would vary, from 15 percent of registered voters in the preceding general election for targeted state officials, to 25 percent for targeted county and local officials.

Officials recalled from office could not seek re-election in subsequent elections to fill the vacancies, under the resolution.

Separate joint resolutions (S. 181, S. 74) by Rose and Thomas also call for a constitutional amendment to allow recall elections.

But Crangle, of Common Cause, points to the recall of then-California Gov. Gray Davis and Davis’ replacement with actor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003 as a reason to oppose recall legislation. In that case, Crangle said, Davis was wrongly accused of contributing to major power shortages in the state at the time, though critics of Davis pointed to that issue and other problems in seeking his ouster.

“Recalls can result in basically capable, honest politicians being taken out by special interests,” he said.

Besides recall rights, Rose also is pushing for a constitutional convention (S. 188, S. 189) to be held every 20 years, aimed at producing a major overhaul of the S.C. Constitution. Under the constitution, a convention can be held if approved by two-thirds of the House and Senate, and a simple majority of voters in a statewide election.

The last time a constitutional convention was held in South Carolina was in 1895. The convention idea then was championed by Gov. Benjamin Tillman, who, under his leadership, “steered the narrow course of disfranchising South Carolina’s African Americans without disfranchising poor, illiterate whites or stirring the national government to act on the U.S. Constitution’s provisions protecting black civil rights,” according to an article in The South Carolina Encyclopedia, edited by USC history professor Walter Edgar.

“Under the new constitutional authority, the Black Codes would re-emerge as Jim Crow laws in forms subtle enough to avoid immediate conflict with the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” the article said.

Over the years, the constitution has been amended numerous times; last month, for example, four amendments dealing with hunting and fishing rights, the right to a secret ballot in union elections, and the state’s rainy day funds were approved by voters. The last serious systematic effort to update the constitution, though it didn’t involve a constitutional convention, occurred in the late 1960s under the West Committee, according to the article in The South Carolina Encyclopedia.

Rose told The Nerve that the current constitution gives too much authority to the Legislature and not enough power to voters and the governor.

“I want a constitutional convention to shift more power from point ‘A’ to points ‘B’ and ‘C,’” he said. “We have an antiquated model that needs to be changed.”

But holding a constitutional convention could “open a Pandora’s Box,” Crangle said.

“You don’t know what you’ll end up with,” he said. “There’s a high risk that a constitutional convention would fall prey to special-interest groups. The more organized and better financed special-interest groups would have a greater impact on writing a new constitution, and a new constitution could be much worse than what we have.”

For Rose, it’s a risk worth taking.

“We need checks and balances,” he said. “We don’t need such a legislatively dominated government.”

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org.