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Editorial: Race for Charleston clerk of court underscores why we shouldn't elect clerk of court

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Julie Armstrong (copy) (copy)

Charleston County Clerk of Court Julie Armstrong, a Republican, is seeking re-election to the post she's held since 1992. File

For those of us who aren’t lawyers, the Charleston County clerk of court office operates mostly out of sight, out of mind: It handles legal filings, schedules hearings and trials and tends to the many unglamorous details involved with making the courthouse hum. We are reluctant to make election endorsements in races for positions that involve little to no policy making; we believe such posts ought to be appointed, not elected.

Our endorsement this year of Republican Clerk of Court Julie Armstrong breaks with that first line of thinking, but the reason we feel compelled to make an endorsement only underscores the second. Ms. Armstrong has run the office well throughout her tenure, and voters should give her another four-year term.

Despite her professionalism and solid reputation, many believe she faces a significant challenge this year because of Charleston County’s growing trend toward voting Democratic. Most voters go to the polls knowing full well who they want to pick for president, even for the U.S. Senate and House and state legislative seats, but far fewer know the stories behind the names lower on the ballot — and clerk of court is pretty far down there. For such offices, the candidates’ party often shapes their fate.

Since 1990, this mostly worked in favor of Republican candidates here, but that has changed. And many lawyers who consider themselves Democrats are spreading the word about their support for Ms. Armstrong. Since 1998, she has worked consistently to digitize court records so they are available without a trip to the courthouse. Her office has handled everything from high-profile trials to the COVID-19 pandemic with few complaints.

It’s easy to see why someone would want the clerk of court job: It pays $145,448 a year and involves supervising almost 80 employees. But her opponent seems like a political opportunist: Before filing for Charleston County clerk of court as a Democrat this year, he ran unsuccessfully for the county register of deeds two years ago — and for Lexington County register of deeds in 2016 and in 2012. And those times he ran as a Republican. Also, his campaign website touts issues over which the clerk of court has no say, such as legalizing medical marijuana and offering mental health treatment to those charged with crimes.

It’s time for our state lawmakers to update the structure of county government by making positions such as clerk of court, auditor, treasurer and register of deeds appointed rather than elected posts. They surely are important jobs, but no more important than the county’s administrator, attorney and tax assessor, all of which already are appointed.

And unlike the county administrator and even the attorney, these elected offices are ministerial positions defined by state law — not policy positions where the officeholders routinely get to exercise their own judgment. All of these posts are administrative in nature. If they remain elected positions, the Legislature should at least change them to nonpartisan positions.

But none of that will happen by Nov. 3, so we urge Charleston County voters to back Ms. Armstrong for another term.

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