Wednesday, April 23, 2014
A divided Georgetown City Council defeated a controversial measure to make city elections nonpartisan, after two council members labeled the measure an effort to suppress the black vote in Georgetown and Mayor Jack Scoville said it could drive a “wedge” through the community.
The proposed ordinance to remove party labels from the names of council candidates on municipal ballots was defeated on a 4-3 vote, April 17, with three Democratic members of the council and Scoville, also a Democrat, opposing it.
Councilman Ed Kimbrough Jr., a Republican elected in last November’s election, and Peggy Wayne, a Democrat, argued for the measure, saying it would remove “partisan politics” from local elections and save money by eliminating party primary elections. Councilwoman Carol Jayroe, a Republican elected in November, also voted for the draft nonpartisan elections ordinance.
“Only eight of the 270 municipalities in South Carolina conduct partisan elections,” Kimbrough said. “Nonpartisan elections work throughout our wonderful state, so let’s trust our citizens to make the right decisions at the polls and vote on the person rather than the party affiliation.” Primary elections cost as much as general elections, Wayne said, and the city could eliminate half its election costs by moving to nonpartisan elections.
Scoville said he favored moving to a nonpartisan ballot if the measure was put to a vote of the people through the referendum process. “One thing I am very certain of is this is a very controversial issue, and it could drive a wedge through our community,” he said. “I under no circumstances feel that such an important and controversial issue should be decided by just four members of the council.”
Two other members of council were adamant that the change could reduce black voter participation, resulting in less representation of black city residents on the council. Council members Rudolph Bradley and Brendon M. Barber Sr., claimed the push for nonpartisan elections was an outgrowth of efforts to suppress the black vote nationally by requiring voters to present specific types of identification at the polls.
In addition, they said, moving to a nonpartisan system would produce a glut of candidates on the November ballot that would dilute the black vote in Georgetown. They were joined in their opposition to the measure by Councilman Clarence Smalls.
“Regardless of what network channel you watch, it was evident during the last national election that there was a strategy that was put in place for voter suppression,” Barber said. “They were not successful at it at the national level, so the strategy moved from the national level to the grassroots level … In the halls of academia, they call this institutional discrimination.”
Bradley described the proposed move to nonpartisan elections as an effort by wealthy elite in Georgetown to seize political power by splitting black votes. “I’d like to call your attention to the historical role in these United State of America, when President Hussein Obama was elected.
“There were a lot of naysayers, negative comments … and they were conclusive that he was elected because he was black … and because of that they started this lie about voter fraud. They were able to convince the legislators and convince the cowards in Washington, D.C. that call themselves Supreme Court justices, and now they have what is called voter ID … and the whole purpose was to attack black votes or to suppress black votes.
“And these very same people in Georgetown are part of that group … The whole idea is they want to split black votes. The other reason is they want to get their buddies in. And these people, another name for them is called pseudo-oligarchy, they want to create an economic power play so they can influence the government, so working people will not have a say-so … I ask the council to consider that the people that are pushing this are up to no good,” Bradley said.
Councilwoman Wayne objected to Councilman Barber’s characterization of the nonpartisan election proposal as discriminatory. “Racism,” she said. “I hate that word and I’ll tell you why. I represent everybody in this city in everything I do. I never look at color, I never look at race. I stand up and vote for what I think is right in this city and that’s what I think everybody on this panel should do. We have two new members making recommendations, and that’s fine,” Wayne said, referring to Kimbrough and Jayroe. “They have a right to do that. Just like I do.”
Currently, Georgetown City Council candidates run in Republican and Democratic primary elections for at-large seats, and the top vote-getters advance to the November general election. In 2013, there were three open council seats, and there were three Republicans and three Democrats on the general election ballot. Democratic incumbent Barber won re-election, and Republicans Jayroe and Kimbrough won election. In addition, Mayor Scoville won re-election to a second term. Wayne, Bradley and Smalls will be up for re-election next year.
A possible public referendum on the non-partisan election issue was complicated by a recent opinion from the state Attorney General’s Office that said the council could not put the issue on the ballot without an initiative petition. Backers of the measure would have to circulate a petition and gather enough signatures to qualify it for the ballot.
The city council could then act to place it on the ballot. Scoville said he would have supported the council placing the issue directly on the ballot, but the attorney general’s opinion requiring an initiative petition first prevented the council from doing that.
The state Attorney General’s Office opinion did give the council the option to change election from partisan to nonpartisan through adoption of an ordinance, which was presented to the council last Wednesday for first reading after it was discussed during a Feb. 27, council workshop.
After the 4-3 vote to defeat the proposed ordinance was taken by the council, Scoville urged proponents of the nonpartisan measure to circulate a petition to gather signatures in support of the measure and bring it to the council, laying the groundwork for a public referendum.
During public comment, three citizens spoke out on the nonpartisan election issue – two against the ordinance and one in favor. Richard Powers, who lost to Scoville in the 2013 mayor’s race, said nonpartisan elections would foster a better business climate in Georgetown. He also urged Scoville to honor a campaign pledge to support nonpartisan elections.