It appears the South Carolina Republican Party is taking an intermediate step toward a larger objective of ending the state's system of independence in the voting process for primaries.
At its most recent meeting, the S.C. Republican Party State Executive Committee unanimously passed a resolution calling for a partisan voter registration option on registration forms.
The resolution calls on the General Assembly to pass legislation that would add appropriate check boxes to voter registration forms enabling people to choose to affiliate with a political party if they wish when they register to vote or update their registration.
"Simply put, it's a freedom-of-association issue," S.C. GOP Chairman Drew McKissick said. "South Carolinians should have the freedom to associate themselves with the political party of their choice when they register to vote."
"In a day when there is so much apathy about politics and antipathy towards government, political parties need to be able to do a better job connecting with and engaging like-minded individuals in the political process."
"The proposal of simply adding appropriate check boxes to the existing voter registration process would greatly increase the ability of like-minded voters and political parties to connect with one another. Our current voter registration system makes that unduly difficult," McKissick said.
McKissick has appointed a Partisan Registration Committee of local GOP officials and activists to promote the party's efforts on behalf of the legislation.
In reality, the effort is about more than identifying Republicans. The party has gone so far as to sue over the present primary voting system, seeking to overturn state laws that prevent political parties in the state from holding primaries in which only people registered with a party can vote in its primary.
The GOP argues that South Carolina law allowing a registered voter to cast ballots in any political party’s primaries denies parties the aforementioned 1st Amendment right of “free association,” a legal concept meaning individuals’ right to express themselves and promote common interests as a group.
A federal judge in 2011 rejected the lawsuit by the GOP, saying that if Republicans don’t want outsiders to help choose their nominees, they have other options, like picking candidates at a party convention or filling out petitions to get them on the ballot.
The decision was a victory for voters, a majority of whom treasure their independent status and want the option of choosing a primary in which to cast their vote without having to officially commit to a party.
When the state moved away from party-funded and operated primaries, the late Sen. Marshall B. Williams of Orangeburg wanted to go even further with voter independence.
Williams, a Democrat, sought to approve voting in more than one primary on the same day, thereby allowing a person to select races in which to make choices, whether the races be Republican or Democrat.
The idea was rejected as fundamentally putting an end to the party nominating process. If voters can pick and choose among candidates across same-day primaries, the vote may as well be a general election.
Thus South Carolina ended up with a system that retains the independence of voters to select a primary in which they will vote but does not allow people to participate in both primaries on the same day. Beyond forbidding a person who voted in one primary from participating in any runoffs by the other party two weeks later, the decision to pick a primary in no way obligates a person to a particular party. A person who voted in the Democratic primary on one day can vote in the Republican primary on another and vice versa.
While South Carolina Democrats have not challenged the present system in the same way as the majority GOP, party regulars on both sides of the political fence always fear that voters loyal to the opposition will seek to manipulate results by voting in the opponent’s primary. There are examples of that happening, but it is not a problem that justifies scratching the present system.
We have faith in most voters casting ballots in the affirmative. And while there remains a need to protect the integrity of primaries by not turning them into an everyone-votes-in-every-race elimination round for the general election, there is good reason to maintain a system that stands to bring more people out to vote on primary day.
As long as identifying yourself as a Republican or Democrat on a voter registration card is a voluntary, there is really no issue with allowing such. But we see the proposed legislation as having the much broader purpose of being a step toward changing the primary voting system.
With turnout as poor as it is for primaries anyway (20 percent in non-presidential years), nothing should be done to diminish interest and limit the ability of people to vote.