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Editorial: Don't read too much into answers to SC GOP advisory questions

Voting precinct (copy)

Two questions on the June Republican primary ballots were particularly misleading. 

Before we move completely past the June primary elections, there are a few more results we need to put into perspective, because it would be easy to  spin the results as meaning something they don’t.

Advisory Question 1 on Republican primary ballots asked voters if people should “have the right to register with the political party of their choice when they register to vote.”

It should surprise no one that 84% of the people who answered that question said yes. Indeed, as long as we allow candidates to register by party to run for office, it’s hard to object to the idea of allowing voters to register a party affiliation.

But that’s not what the Republican Party wants, and you can be sure that’s not what party leaders are going to be telling lawmakers the results mean. What the party wants is to force people to register as Republicans in order to vote in a Republican primary. Fortunately, our legislators have had the good sense to reject proposals to close our primaries to the public, with more Republican House members voting against it than for it when it came up for a vote this spring. But the party will try to use that 84% figure to bully them into changing their minds.

So let’s look at little more closely at what it means. First, the numbers: 306,089 people voted “yes” on the question. That’s only 9% of South Carolina’s 3.3 million registered voters. Hardly a mandate.

More significantly, if the party wants to convince the Legislature that it should require a loyalty oath to vote in GOP primaries, then the party needs to ask that question: Should people be barred from voting in a primary election if they aren’t registered party members?

There might be a large number of people who think that’s a great idea. But probably a lot fewer, and maybe not a majority, because it would mean that people who don’t consider themselves partisans would be locked out of the elections where most races are now decided, as would partisans who happen to live in districts dominated by the other party. Unless the party asks a question about what it actually wants to do, the results are meaningless.

Likewise, Advisory Question 2 asked: “Should candidates for local school boards be able to run as a candidate of the political party of their choice, just like candidates for other elected offices?”

That question grows out of a bill the Legislature passed this year to force candidates for the Lancaster County School Board to run in partisan elections. Gov. Henry McMaster vetoes all single-county bills, so he appropriately vetoed that one. But the same party leaders who want to limit voters from participating in primaries obviously saw this as a great way to reduce the chance that people who disagree with them will have a say in who serves on their local school board.

The GOP’s headline number of 76% approval of partisan school board elections would more appropriately be reported as 8% of S.C. registered voters favoring a law that allows school board candidates to identify their party preference.

Contrary to what the question says, this one aims to upend the entire way we elect school boards, stripping candidates of the right to have their names on the November ballot unless they first win a June primary.

And lest you think the party would be content to simply allow candidates to have their party preference listed — a smart idea some states have explored in conjunction with doing away with party primaries — consider this other provision in the bill the governor vetoed: It required current school board members who aren’t up for reelection until 2024 to “declare their political affiliation by affidavit filed with the Lancaster County Board of Voter Registration and Elections” as a condition of finishing their current terms.

It’s particularly ironic that the Republican Party would push to close the primaries when only about 10% of registered voters bothered to participate in the June GOP primary. With numbers like that, you'd think the party would want to encourage more people to think of themselves as Republicans.

That was the approach then-Gov. Carroll Campbell took when he convinced the party to start holding a presidential primary, rather than caucuses. At a time when most South Carolina voters preferred Republicans in the White House and tolerated them in the governor’s mansion but still voted for Democrats for the Legislature and county courthouse positions, it was a brilliant move that played a huge role in building the GOP hegemony of the past 20 years.

It’s unfortunate that the people running the state Republican Party today don’t the same trust in the voters that Gov. Campbell did.

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