Every two years, partisan primary elections are held in South Carolina. Democratic and (mostly) Republican voters go to the polls each even-numbered June to decide which candidates they want to represent them in the general election that fall.
As part of that process, both the S.C. Republican Party (SCGOP) and the S.C. Democratic Party (SCDP) are allowed to submit ballot questions – or advisory referendums – for voters to consider as they make their decisions regarding candidates.
Unlike general election referendums, these partisan ballot questions do not carry the force of law. They are merely measures of public opinion. “Advisory questions.”
Why put them on the ballot, then?
Typically, political parties put questions about hot-button issues on the ballot to drive voter turnout. The goal is to give voters who may not have otherwise been inclined to participate in the election a reason to do so. For example, let’s assume the issue of abortion is front-and-center in the public discourse (which, it is). Parties eager to capitalize on voter passion surrounding this issue – either for or against – might put a question related to abortion on the primary ballot as a way of luring voters to the polls.
Parties are allowed to put as many of these questions on the ballot as they choose – and the wording of the questions is left exclusively to party leaders.
In other words, there are literally no rules governing the process …
Election officials have historically warned parties against putting so many questions on the ballot that it “makes (it) multiple pages,” but as of this writing that hasn’t happened.
So … how many questions did the SCGOP submit on this year’s primary ballot? Three.
They are as follows …
- Should people have the right to register with the political party of their choice when they register to vote?
- Should candidates for local school boards be able to run as a candidate of the political party of their choice, just like they do for other elected offices?
- In a situation where there is more than one person responsible for damages in a lawsuit, do you support changing South Carolina law so that each person should pay damages based on that person’s actual share of fault?
The first two questions are clearly focused on the SCGOP’s ongoing efforts to close partisan primaries in South Carolina. Supporters of a closed primary system argue it would keep these elections “pure” – preventing Democrats and independents from having a say in the selection of GOP nominees.
And vice versa … (ahem).
Opponents argue closed primaries suppress voter turnout, effectively disenfranchising broad swaths of the electorate in violation of the “one person, one vote” principle.
For years, I have argued against closing primaries – believing voters should be able to cast their ballots in whichever primary election floats their boat. In 2016, I even argued that voters in the “First in the South” presidential preference primaries should have been able to vote in both GOP and Democratic elections seeing as these races were held on different days.
It is ridiculous, therefore, for the SCGOP to refer to partisan identification as a “right.” Republican and Democratic voters already have that right. All they have to do is keep voting in their own party primaries.
The third “Republican” question is the most interesting, though … as it seems clear the SCGOP threw it on the ballot at the behest of some special interest.
Which special interest, though?
Regular readers of this news outlet know the issue of tort reform has figured prominently in a high-profile wrongful death case linked to the ‘Murdaugh Murders’ crime and corruption saga.
Mallory Beach, 19, of Hampton, S.C., was killed shortly after 2:00 a.m. EST on February 24, 2019 when a 17-foot, center console fishing boat owned by Alex Murdaugh (the man at the center of this saga) and allegedly driven by his late son, Paul Murdaugh, slammed into the piling of a Beaufort County, S.C. bridge at a high rate of speed.
Paul Murdaugh – who was murdered last spring along with his mother – was “drunker than Cooter Brown” at the time of the crash, to quote his late grandfather.
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Beach’s family sued the Murdaughs as well as several of the establishments which either sold or served Paul Murdaugh alcohol on that fateful evening – arguing multiple parties were to blame for the tragedy.
One of those defendants – Parker’s Kitchen – has launched a scorched earth campaign in response to the lawsuit. Meanwhile, the company’s founder – Greg Parker – has been wining and dining influential lawmakers in the hopes of convincing them to amend the state’s tort laws.
The SCGOP ballot question certainly sounds right up Parker’s alley … a tool he could use to convince lawmakers to make changes that would benefit his business model.
In a post on her Instagram page, attorney (and former state lawmaker) Mandy Powers Norrell urged GOP voters to “watch out for this non-binding and confusing ballot question.”
“It’s designed to get a ‘yes’ answer, but be careful,” Norrell wrote.
Norrell presented the hypothetical of an 18-year-old with no assets who drove drunk and killed someone. Assuming the victim’s family were to sue both the driver and the store which sold him alcohol, their ability to recover damages would be capped based on the extent to which the blame was apportioned in the case.
In other words, if a jury found the penniless driver ninety percent to blame – the victim’s family could only collect on ten percent of the total verdict from the defendant with deep pockets.
“That’s not fair,” Norrell said. “Under current law, an entity that is the proximate cause of an injury or death – meaning it wouldn’t have happened ‘but for’ their negligence – is liable for the full damages. They can try to collect reimbursement from others at fault. But that responsibility is the at-fault paying party’s, and not the victim’s. Let’s keep it that way.”
While I do further digging on the origin of the GOP ballot question, perhaps the biggest controversy I have uncovered is the failure of the Democratic party to include a single “advisory question” on its ballot.
Why wouldn’t the party want to include a question or two to draw attention (and voters) to its partisan primary elections this spring?
Stay tuned for much more on that in a future post …
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven children.
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