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Keep primaries open in South Carolina

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Special Elections in Berkeley County (copy)

I voted sticker. (Brad Nettles/Staff)

T  he South Carolina Republican Party is asking voters on primary day to weigh in on whether voters “believe they should have the option to choose to affiliate with a political party when they register to vote. …” This “advisory” vote seems innocent enough. Until you take a closer look.

Here’s why voters should be suspicious. (And we should know. We’re independents and we’ve been fighting to protect open primaries in South Carolina for a decade.) For 10 years, the Republican Party has been trying to find a way to require voters to join a party in order to vote in a primary. While the courts and the public—and even part of the Republican Party itself—have prevented this from happening, the South Carolina GOP is like the weeds in your summer garden. No matter how many times you cut them down or yank them out, they keep coming back.

Here’s the background in a nutshell. In 2010 the S.C. Republican Party joined the Greenville County Republican Organization in federal court seeking a ruling that would force the state to close its primaries and institute partisan registration. This would have meant that South Carolina’s long history of nonpartisan voting rules would come to an end. In a decision at an early stage of the litigation, U.S. District Judge J. Michelle Childs wrote an opinion rejecting the party’s position that it was constitutionally entitled to close its primary:

“In enacting elections laws, States must engage in a tough balancing act that culminates in a procedure that protects the rights of political organizations, the rights of candidates, and the rights of voters.”

Nonetheless, the Republicans pressed forward. We led a group of voters and organizations in South Carolina who joined together to intervene in the case on the side of the attorney general to preserve the existing open system. One of us, Wayne Griffin, is the head of the South Carolina Independence Party, an elected official in Greer, and a longtime leader in the African American community. The other, Harry Kresky, counsel to (a national organization fighting for fair treatment for independent voters, now 42 percent of the electorate), represented the intervenors.

Additional intervenors were 13 members of the Black Legislative Caucus of the South Carolina House of Representatives, led by the late Joseph Neal. They joined because they believed that partisan registration and a closed primary system would intensify the state’s racial polarization as African Americans would join the Democratic Party and whites the Republican Party. Given how the Republican Party dominates in South Carolina, this would mean that the African American community would have no say in the outcome of most elections, since the winner is almost always the winner of the Republican primary.

This polarization could have devastating consequences for black communities and poor communities that would become isolated and even more disempowered. As Joe Neal explained at the time, “… The South Carolina federal court has upheld the rights of voters in South Carolina, especially the minority community, to free and unfettered access to the polls. This measure … would have eliminated the ability of hundreds of thousands of African Americans to have a voice in who represents them in many positions of influence in South Carolina.”

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It would also mean that South Carolina citizens who are independents and not registered in a party would be paying taxes for a primary system in which they were barred from voting. Consequently, the coalition opposing the change to a closed primary was an unusual mix of the overtaxed and the underserved.

As the case moved toward trial, the state Republican Party withdrew as a plaintiff, and the case was dismissed on the grounds that the Greenville organization lacked standing and could not speak for the party as a whole. The dismissal was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Now the Republican Party is trying to re-open the question by asking voters to ratify the idea of allowing party registration at the polls, a first step down a slippery slope.

At a time when racial and political polarization is on the rise in our country, it would be a step backward if South Carolina were to close its primaries. While the referendum on the ballot on June 12 is not binding, it could pave the way for a renewed effort to impose party registration on the voters and to close first-round voting to all but declared party members. In times such as these where we need to bring people together — rather than tear them apart — we need a political system that fosters shared interests.

Voting “No” on GOP Advisory Question No. 1 in June is important. And because South Carolina has open primaries, you can vote on it whether or not you identify with either political party. Voting “No” will not stop you from identifying as a Republican or as a member of any party. It will not stop you from supporting and participating in its activities. It will, however, prevent South Carolina from taking a step back to the time of Jim Crow, and from allocating much needed tax dollars to the private activity of party building.

Be sure to vote. The issue of fair and open elections is about the people, all of them. It is not a Democratic or a Republican issue. South Carolinians have always been fiercely independent, and while we may disagree about a host of things, having a free and fair political process isn’t one of them.

Harry Kresky is general counsel at Independent Voting. Wayne Griffin is chairman of the South Carolina Independence Party and a member of Greer City Council.

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