COLUMBIA — Voters will decide next month whether South Carolina will continue to elect its governors and lieutenant governors separately, or whether gubernatorial nominees will pick their running mates starting in 2018.
The constitutional amendment question on Nov. 6 ballots will also determine who presides over the Senate and how a vacancy in the office now largely considered ceremonial would be filled.
Voters who choose “yes” are saying they want the state’s governor and No. 2 to run on the same ticket and the state Senate to elect its own presiding officer, meaning the lieutenant governor would no longer preside over the chamber.
Former Gov. Mark Sanford pushed the proposal for years, and Gov. Nikki Haley continued the call. In South Carolina, the governor and lieutenant governor have very little interaction, and in recent years they famously disliked each other.
But it took the guilty plea and resignation of former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard, 14 months into his first term, for legislators to put the question on the ballot.
If the proposed changes had been in place, Haley would have chosen Ard’s replacement, and former Sen. Glenn McConnell would still be the state’s most powerful lawmaker.
The 64-year-old Charleston Republican, first elected to the Senate in 1980, reluctantly assumed Ard’s post in March, stunning political observers who expected him to resign as president pro tem long enough for someone else to become lieutenant governor.
But McConnell said he could not contort the state constitution’s designated lines of succession. He noted then, however, that he didn’t have to be in that position.
Within weeks, the Senate approved putting the joint-ticket question to voters – a measure that had passed the House several times – but only after pushing the start date to 2018.
The move ensured that Haley, whose relationship with legislators has been just as contentious as Sanford’s, couldn’t benefit during her potential run for a second and final term.
Now, after years of political wrangling, the question’s finally on the ballot, but it has received little attention.
No group is spending money to champion or oppose it. South Carolina’s League of Women Voters put out a two-page informational report that doesn’t take a position.
It says it would provide a more cohesive executive team and ensure that the lieutenant governor would continue its agenda should something happen to the governor.
South Carolina voters have elected governors and lieutenant governors from different parties several times, most recently in 1998.
The league also notes that it would more clearly define the balance of power because the lieutenant governor would no longer have roles in both the executive and legislative branches.
His current duties are to preside over the Senate, oversee the state Office on Aging – a role added after former Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer sought more responsibility – and step up if the governor’s seat is vacated.
Among the league’s cons: The change would remove voters’ ability to select a statewide officer and give the governor more power.
Haley says she reminds voters of the ballot question at various speaking events, such as her appearance Monday at the Sumter Rotary Club.
“I think it’s very important they know that question is on the ballot and that they think hard about whether they want to support that,” she said Tuesday.
McConnell, who sponsored a similar measure more than a year before leaving the Senate, believes the referendum will win approval.
“I think it’s a good model of management,” he said. “The governor, with extensive responsibilities, needs a right-hand person going forward.”
While he reluctantly left a job he loved, he said his new role overseeing the Office on Aging has opened his eyes to the
“great tsunami” of the state’s aging population, their needs and lawmakers’ need to prepare.
“Maybe it’s a good thing for me that change wasn’t in effect,” he said Wednesday during a break on his “Face of Aging” tour across the state.
“That morning, I felt like I was at my own political funeral. But now I’m thankful for the opportunity. This issue of aging needed to be tackled. The events that put me in this position have given me the opportunity to focus on it.”