It's not easy to know whether our state Legislature is just plain stupid, or if there's something deeper — a genuine, intrinsic malevolence.
With regard to our current budget crisis, it's easy to believe we are looking at stupidity. Four years ago, the Republican General Assembly gave huge property tax rollbacks to some of the wealthiest residents — and biggest campaign donors — in the state. They sought to make up the difference with a hike in the sales tax. They did this even as economic advisers and tax experts warned that this was folly, that when the economy slowed down, sales tax revenues would tank.
That's exactly what has happened as South Carolina wallows in the deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression. Today the state faces an $829 million budget shortfall, and this after the budget already has been slashed by $2 billion over the last two years. There is pain throughout the land as agencies reduce services, close offices, furlough workers, cut Medicaid, and even contemplate trimming 10 days off the school year.
One suspects that this is gross stupidity. After all, the anger and anguish of this poor state is aimed directly at the Lege. Our solons look helpless and stupid, and we know that was never their intention, for they are nothing if not vain. They played with fire, and they got burned — along with the rest of us.
Yes, we can mark that one up to stupidity. But the economy is not the only crisis in our state. We have a crisis of democracy, as exemplified by our broken election system. We saw this all too vividly in the Democratic primary last June, the primary in which an unemployed man who had never sought public office, who did not have a campaign staff or an office or even a computer, defeated a seasoned and well-funded political figure who had been campaigning around the state for months.
There has never been a credible explanation for Alvin Greene's 20-percentage-point victory over Vic Rawl. Cynicism about the Democratic primary was inevitable in light of several well-publicized technical and human failures since the iVotronic machines were purchased in 2004 to serve all 46 counties. Most recently, there were at least two major snafus in the 2010 general election.
In November, Colleton County reported 13,045 votes for statewide offices, though only 11,656 ballots were cast. The problem stemmed from voting machines counting 1,389 votes twice, an acknowledged problem with these machines.
In Lancaster County last fall, a Freedom of Information Act request revealed that the usual digital files resulting from an election did not in fact exist. Totaling the votes was done manually. There was a discrepancy between the database at county headquarters and the databases in the individual machines, making the automatic aggregation of votes from individual machines impossible.
These are just a couple of the problems with the iVotronic machines in recent years. In other cases, miscalibrated machines resulted in names lighting up on the touch screen that voters had not selected. Dr. Duncan Buell, chairman of the University of South Carolina Department of Computer Science and Engineering, has warned that the state's voting machines can be hacked.
There is one solution that would solve almost all the voting machine problems and go a long way toward restoring public faith in the electoral process: have the machines issue a printed record to each voter of the ballot he just cast.
"We have no ability in South Carolina to count anything except what gets stored in the memory chips of the voting machines," Buell told a Spartanburg TV station. "There is no paper record."
It just happens that there are several pieces of legislation dealing with election law that have been prefiled as the General Assembly returns to begin its 2011-2012 session. Unfortunately, giving our voting machines a paper record is not one of them.
No, our GOP Legislature is intent on passing laws to reduce opportunities for early voting and absentee voting and forcing voters to produce a photo ID to cast a ballot, even when they have a voter registration card. Research shows that all of these measures have the effect of restricting the vote, and those most often disenfranchised are the poor and the elderly. Why do the GOPers want to push through these changes in the state's election law? They say it is to prevent voter fraud, yet there have been fewer than a dozen cases of voter fraud recorded in the state in decades.
With all the election problems we face in this state, the GOPers are intent on solving a problem that does not exist, even as they disenfranchise thousands of voters in the state. That, my friends, is not stupidity. That is malevolence.