Gov. Mark Sanford's scandal will have one positive outcome if it convinces the Legislature to provide voters a method by which they can recall elected officials in South Carolina. The public should be given the opportunity to throw a scoundrel out in mid-term if his offense is serious enough.
That said, we don't think the governor's misdeeds rose to a level that should have compelled his removal, and neither did the House Judiciary Committee. Maybe the public feels differently -- we'll never know in Mr. Sanford's case.
But it's not hard to imagine an instance when an elected official should be subject to something more than the public's scorn while he remains in office.
Of the two proposals that have been submitted to the Legislature, Sen. Larry Grooms' plan is clearly superior. It would apply to all elected officials in the state and provide further options for initiative and petition at the statewide level.
The House bill, in contrast, would only apply to constitutional officers, including the governor.
Sen. Grooms, R-Berkeley, notes that South Carolina is among a minority of states with no provision for voter recall. Nor is there any way for the public to initiate a statewide referendum by petition.
The Legislature previously has recognized the value of voter initiative by giving voters in local jurisdictions the authority to call for a referendum by a petition of 15 percent of registered voters. That provision doesn't allow for recall of local officials, however.
The biggest barrier to legislative approval of statewide initiative and petition is the possibility that it could be used to force term limits of elected officials, as in other states.
Under Sen. Grooms' proposal, voters could call for an official's removal from office 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 experience elsewhere says that the bar should be set high enough to forbid the casual use of initiative, including that for recall. Sen. Grooms' proposal would require 15 percent of statewide qualified electors to force a recall vote on statewide officers and 25 percent for legislative and local officials, within their respective districts.
Currently, state or local officials can be removed by the governor if convicted of crimes involving "moral turpitude," such as murder and theft. Constitutional officers can be impeached by the Legislature, if the House determines that offenses are substantial enough to warrant a Senate trial.
In Mr. Sanford's case, the House Judiciary decided that his extramarital affair and disappearance from the state for five days didn't warrant impeachment. Nor did questions about his use of state aircraft rise to that level.
Sen. Grooms' recall proposal couldn't be applied to Gov. Sanford, even if the public were so inclined. It would require endorsement by statewide referendum in November, and, assuming passage, would be ratified in January after Mr. Sanford has left office.
South Carolina voters should have the option to seek removal of a public official whom they consider no longer worthy of the public's trust. And a recall provision should apply to all elected officials -- state and local.
The Legislature should give the voters of South Carolina broader opportunities to make their voices heard. Sen. Grooms' proposal would meet that need.
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