Originally created 11/20/00

Panel's balloting changes



AIKEN - An impasse over the chairmanship of the Aiken legislative delegation that led to several 4-4 votes last session could be resolved soon, even if there's still a tie between members who covet the post.

That's because some votes are now worth more than others on the delegation. Lawmakers' voting strength on local issues is "weighted" according to how many people each represents in the county.

The new system was developed by a federal judge who was irked when the state Legislature ignored a court ruling that the old-fashioned way of letting county delegations make decisions on local affairs was unfair and unconstitutional. The lawmakers got one-man-one-vote on matters such as appointments to boards and commissions. But the people they represented did not, the court said. The Legislature could have developed its own remedy, but did not.

The new system is expected to make a difference in matters such as appointments to boards and commissions, which delegation members vote on. And it apparently means that Aiken Republican Sen. Greg Ryberg can have, if he wants it, the chairmanship that eluded him last go-around. Then, the delegation kept splitting between him and Wagener Republican Rep. Charles R. Sharpe. Neither would back down, and none of their supporters would switch sides.

Now Mr. Ryberg has the most voting power on the local delegation, with a weighted score of 0.2805, because his district encompasses nearly 69,000 people. Democratic Sen. Nikki Setzler, who lives in West Columbia, has the least clout, because his district includes only four rural precincts in Aiken County, just 5,281 people. His weighted vote is 0.0218.

The change creates a whole new ballgame for issues on which the individual lawmakers are divided. On the chairmanship division, Mr. Setzler's one vote was cast against Mr. Ryberg, who cast his one vote for himself. In weighted votes, that would mean two votes against Mr. Ryberg and 28 for him.

The only hitch is that nothing passes without a total weight of 0.500 or more. But Mr. Ryberg still could become chairman if as few as two others on the eight-member delegation support him.

Mr. Ryberg did not return telephone inquiries about the weighted votes' effect on him, but he has told colleagues on the delegation he still wants to be chairman.

Mr. Sharpe says he's not going to seek the chairmanship this session. But Langley Republican Rep. Roland Smith says he's changed his mind about holding onto it. To do that, he'd need the support of at least four other members. The scenario might mean that some delegation members object to using the weighted vote system for matters that do not necessarily affect the public at large, such as their own organization.

An added wrinkle is the appearance on the delegation of two people who haven't been involved in the squabble over the chairmanship. They are Aiken Republican Rep. Robert S."Skipper" Perry Jr. and North Augusta Republican Rep. Don Smith.

Mr. Perry said he plans to challenge the unwritten rule that the chairmanship won't be voted on unless all delegation members are present.

There are numerous implications of weighted votes that are likely to emerge in short order. They might affect the ability of some lawmakers to represent their Aiken County constituents as fully as they have in the past.

Clearwater Democratic Sen. Tommy Moore, for example, has been the logical person for Democrats to approach with their concerns. But his voting weight now is 0.1977 compared to Mr. Ryberg's 0.2805. Mr. Moore has 47,820 constituents in Aiken County and more than 27,000 in Edgefield and McCormick counties.

Aiken Democratic Rep. Bill Clyburn, the only black member of the delegation, has been the logical person for blacks throughout Aiken County to approach with their concerns. But he has only 10,048 constituents in the county - most of his are in Edgefield - and his voting strength on the delegation is 0.0415.

There's also a question of whether rural voters are getting a fair shake, because voting clout on the delegation rests with the lawmakers whose districts are heavily populated. Mr. Sharpe's district is one that's primarily rural, so his district is not heavily populated. That drops his voting strength on the Aiken delegation down to 0.1108.

He's one legislator with deep-seated concerns about weighted votes, less for his ability to participate in Aiken's local affairs than for his weight - or lack of it - in Orangeburg, where his district barely spills over the county line.

"This means the people I represent in Orangeburg County get very little say in what happens. When I vote on their behalf on the Orangeburg delegation, their interests do not carry the same weight as they have in the past," he said.

Another way the numbers break down on the Aiken delegation is that senators and representatives each have a combined weight of 0.500. The three Democrats on the delegation have only 0.2610 voting clout and would need the support of Mr. Ryberg or at least two other Republicans to get anything passed. Republicans have a combined weight of 0.7390.

Under the old system, when an issue split along party lines, Republicans held sway anyway, so that's not a change. "It's going to be interesting to see how all this plays out," Mr. Moore said.

One probable outcome is that lawmakers will consider surrendering some of their power, which includes having county delegations choose the members of boards and commissions and overseeing the budgets of special purpose districts in their counties. In some of South Carolina's 46 counties, the delegation also oversees the local school districts' budgets, although that's not the case in Aiken.

When the Legislature reconvenes in January, it's likely to debate whether those powers should be turned over to county councils around the state.

Reach Margaret N. O'Shea at (803) 279-6895.