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Scoppe: How a primary ballot question changed the course of SC history — for the worse

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SC political parties routinely add questions to the primary ballots. Robert Behre/Staff

The chairman of the state Republican Party threw a bit of a fit on Friday about our editorial on the misleading question on the GOP primary ballot, firing off a blast-email complaining that a “Post and Courier Editorial Encourages Democrats to Vote in the Republican Primary.” (Funny; he didn’t get upset when we encouraged Republicans to vote in the Democratic presidential primary in February.)

It might seem silly to even take the time to write about political parties’ ballot questions, which have no force of law and can’t even be called “advisory” since no government designs them.

But if you think they’re harmless, I invite you on a brief tour of South Carolina’s recent political history. (Yes, again.)

Today’s trip takes us back 26 years, to the moment the S.C. General Assembly came within a single vote of resolving the Confederate flag debate — years before the evil man-child massacred the faithful at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, before the NAACP launched its years-long economic boycott of South Carolina, even before that first King Day at the Dome to demand the removal of the flag from the Statehouse dome.

It was the spring of 1994, and after months of emotional public testimony and agonizing private negotiations, a special Senate panel produced a breakthrough, middle-way compromise: The Heritage Act would remove the battle flag from the dome and inside the Statehouse, place two smaller Confederate flags at monuments on the Statehouse grounds, build an African American history monument and give legal protection to other Confederate monuments around the state.

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Cindi Ross Scoppe

The hours were ticking down in that year’s legislative session when supporters presented the plan, the Senate voted without opposition to attach it to a House-passed bill and sent it back to the lower chamber — where a single House member raised a parliamentary point that made it impossible for representatives to vote before the Legislature’s mandatory adjournment.

That procedural delay was emotionally devastating, but legislative leaders in both bodies and both parties counseled patience. We’ll pass it in January, they said.

Less than two weeks later, an obscure panel of politicians — the executive committee of the state Republican Party — upended everything by adding three nonbinding questions to that year’s GOP primary ballots: Should term limits for elected officials be enacted? Should property taxes for homeowners and businesses be eliminated? Should the Confederate flag be taken down from atop the Statehouse?

Although there was no clear legal authority for the parties to add questions to the ballot, there was no prohibition either, so state election officials complied.

Get a weekly recap of South Carolina opinion and analysis from The Post and Courier in your inbox on Monday evenings.


Confederate battle flag controversy renewed (copy)

The American flag, the South Carolina state flag and the Confederate battle flag fly above the dome of the Statehouse in Columbia before the flag was moved in 2000 to a monument honoring Civil War soldiers in front of the capitol.

GOP officials — under the leadership of party Chairman Henry McMaster — made no secret of their desire to boost turnout for the primary, which had been moved to August because legislative district drawing got hung up in federal court, and in so doing get voters invested in the Republican candidates who would be back on the ballot in November.

But there was clearly a second goal, or perhaps a primary goal: Polling had found strong public support for a middle-way approach along the lines of what the Senate had passed, and the party was controlled by a fiercely pro-flag faction. By deliberately omitting that option, the party forced its voters to pick one of the extreme positions.

Riled-up flag supporters swamped the polls, voting 3-to-1 to leave the flag on the dome.

When Republicans took control of the House that fall for the first time since Reconstruction, party officials frightened them into believing they had received a mandate from voters against moving the flag. Gov. David Beasley tried two years later to revive the compromise, but a self-styled Southern heritage group sent letters to everyone who voted in the 1994 Republican primary, urging them to call their lawmakers at home, sign petitions in support of the flag and pledge money to the cause. The money those voters donated would help turn Mr. Beasley into a one-term governor.

The Legislature eventually voted, under Mr. Beasley’s Democratic successor, Jim Hodges, to adopt something along the lines of the Heritage Act, but that was after several more years of bitter dispute, and without the broad-based consensus that had surrounded that 1994 effort.

Meantime, the Republicans would continue littering their primary ballots with questions designed to attract culture warriors from the right to their primaries and box in legislators. And the Democrats would soon join in with their own copy-cat campaign of questions pushing leftist themes.

Fortunately, none of those later questions packed the political power of the first one. But they remain a poisonous force in our politics and a defilement of our ballots.

Question No. 1 on the June 9 Republican ballot (the Democrats have no questions this year) asks if voters should have “the right” to register by party. The real goal, as we explained in an editorial on Friday, is to lock everyone out of the primaries who isn’t willing to pledge an oath of allegiance to a political party. I’m voting in the GOP primary for the purpose of saying no. I hope y’all will join me.

Cindi Ross Scoppe is an editorial writer for The Post and Courier. Contact her at cscoppe@postandcourier.com or follow her on Facebook or Twitter  @cindiscoppe.

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