One of the most critical and quintessential aspects of republican government is free and fair elections. If the integrity of the electoral process breaks down, so does the American system of self-government and representative democracy. That’s why, here in South Carolina, we’re now faced with one of the most fundamental issues in this primary election season. Do we have a system of free elections, and do our election laws meet the “equal protection” qualification of American law?
Yesterday, in a surprising verdict, the SC Supreme Court voted 5-0 to disqualify dozens of candidates for public office in our state. This was the first year in South Carolina that candidates for public office were required to electronically submit an economic interest declaration to the SC Ethics Commission concurrent with filing as a candidate. This new requirement was intended to improve our state’s ethics laws, as there have been questions about members of the General Assembly having conflicts of interest upon entering office. These conflicts of interest have included retainer contracts between legislators and businesses that contract business with the state. These retainer contracts were, essentially, state-dependent businesses buying votes on legislation critical to their cause.
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While no consistent conservative would oppose such improvements in ethics and economic interests reporting, the way in which these improvements were implemented leaves something to be desired. The General Assembly, in passing these ethics reforms, continued their time-tested practice of prescribing one set of rules for them, and another set of rules for the rest of us. In keeping with this tradition, our state election laws provide different deadlines and different penalties for incumbent legislators and those who are challenging them. For example, the filing deadline to run for reelection is April 15th for a member of the General Assembly, but March 30th for those who seek to challenge them. The penalty for failing to file an economic interest report at the time of filing for a member of the General Assembly is a $100.00 fine, but for a prospective challenger it is disqualification from the state ballot. Sounds like political elites protecting their power, position and perquisites to me.
While the SC Supreme Court followed the letter of the law in their ruling yesterday, thus disqualifying dozens of candidates in Republican and Democratic primaries, they ignored the rule of law. The Court ruled on the side of sucking up to the state legislature, not standing up for the right of the people to seek public office. That’s because, under our state’s lack of separation-of-powers, the legislature, not the Governor, appoints the members of the Supreme Court. As such, the decision of the Court was more about politics than protecting equal justice under law. Two sets of election laws, one for incumbent office holders and the other for their challengers, violates the equal protection clause and is, therefore, unconstitutional. The Court must have missed that fact, or were too busy playing to their masters in the legislature.
In order to reverse this case of insider political protectionism, I support SC Senator Kevin Bryant’s (R-Anderson) common sense proposal that we reopen filing for office. In order to ensure that equal protection is provided, and that free and fair elections prevail, Senator Bryant has proposed a bill that would reopen filing for public office for 12 hours. This would provide the necessary time for candidates to comply with the ambiguous requirement for online ethics filing. This is an act of true statesmanship on the part of Senator Bryant, and I want to thank him for it; it is far too rare that we see an act of selflessness in state government. It bears mentioning that Senator Bryant himself has a primary challenger, though I’m more confident than ever in Kevin’s conservative credentials.
We must end the era of politics-as-usual in Columbia if we’re going to move South Carolina forward. The practice of politicians passing one set of laws for themselves, and another set for the folks, is repulsive and it must stop. Senator Bryant’s measure must pass, so that politics once again becomes about the business of the people not the power and possessions of the well-connected. It’s worth mentioning that this whole mess was started in the first place by an incumbent state senator who put a few supporters up to filing a lawsuit to disqualify his primary opponent. So, in the name of protecting his position, one politician was willing to sacrifice the voice of the people. We must deny him the opportunity to steal an election in our state, for South Carolina is better than this.