COLUMBIA — Fresh off a successful 2020 campaign with an expanded majority, Republicans in the South Carolina Statehouse are eyeing changes to the state's election agency that could give their party more influence over the process in the future.
A fast-moving bill sponsored by S.C. House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, would give an expanded State Election Commission more power to standardize the election process and ensure all 46 counties have uniform practices.
But it was changes to Lucas' bill, H.3444, after it was initially filed that significantly tilted the partisan balance of the changed commission, drawing the ire of Democrats who called it a transparent power grab.
Taken together, the bill in its latest form would effectively give Republicans the opportunity to build a 6-3 partisan advantage on the commission while simultaneously granting that agency more power to handle what happens at the ballot box.
"That’s not fair," said state Rep. Justin Bamberg, D-Bamberg. "That’s blatantly obvious."
The House Judiciary Committee ultimately voted 14-7 in favor of the bill, sending it to the House floor.
Lucas' initial bill sought to expand the size of the state election commission from five to eight, dividing the membership equally between the two major political parties.
But an amendment that passed in subcommittee added a ninth member and significantly tilted the partisan makeup of the commission, taking it from an equal 4-4 to as much as 6-3 in favor of Republicans with the party's dominance in the General Assembly and governor's office.
Initially, the governor was given the ability to pick four of the eight members, and he was only allowed to pick two from his own party. But the amendment took the governor's total number of appointees to five while raising the maximum from his own party to four.
Republicans have controlled the governor's office since 2003 and have not lost a statewide election for any position since 2006.
The House speaker and Senate president would combine to appoint four members of the commission, but they would be required to take the recommendation of the minority party in their chambers for at least two of them. Republicans have controlled both chambers of the state Legislature for two decades.
Under the current law, the governor picks all five commission members, at least one of whom must come from the majority party in the General Assembly and at least one from the minority party.
State Rep. Seth Rose, D-Columbia, sought to change the bill back to its original form or at least decrease the number of commission members the governor could pick from his own political party from four out of five to three out of five.
But state Rep. Jay Jordan, R-Florence, objected to Rose's effort, saying the bill had gone through a process in consultation with the speaker's and governor's offices.
"While everyone has a right to participate in the process and insert their opinion, this didn't just come out of thin air," Jordan said.
That drew howls from Bamberg, who said it would "stack the deck" in favor of Republicans and erode public trust in elections.
"Everybody's supposed to have a voice," Bamberg said. "There's supposed to be a perception that the state election commission is going to make non-biased, non-politically motivated decisions to protect the institution of public elections in this state."
Lucas has explained that the main purpose of his bill was to standardize how counties operate. And if the state election commission was going to get more authority, he reasoned, the Legislature should have a say in its composition, not just the governor.
Lawmakers would not be allowed to serve on the commission themselves until at least eight years after they had left office. Campaign donors to the governor or lieutenant governor would also not be able to serve until at least four years after their donation.
After the hearing, Jordan said the latest change came about because the governor's office wanted to ensure they maintained latitude over their picks in light of them ceding some power over the commission to the Legislature.
Gov. Henry McMaster's spokesman Brian Symmes confirmed that they had worked with Lucas and Jordan to make the changes, saying they wanted to ensure there would be "appropriate accountability" over the members of the commission.
Some top Republicans took issue with the current S.C. Election Commission last year after executive director Marci Andino sent lawmakers a letter recommending changes to the process due to the coronavirus pandemic, including by expanding access to absentee voting.
A few of Andino's suggestions, like removing a witness signature requirement on absentee ballots, were supported more by Democrats, who unsuccessfully took GOP leaders to court to try to force that change.