S.C. voters will pick their choice for president, Congress and dozens of state legislative races in November.
But how much will their votes matter? Not much, maybe.
The contests in most S.C. legislative districts were over before qualifying for the races opened or were settled in June’s primary.
On Nov. 8, voters in only 28 percent of S.C. legislative districts will have a choice of more than one candidate on the ballot. In half of the 170 State House races, incumbents will coast to reelection having faced no opposition.
Why the lack of opponents?
Most S.C. districts are drawn to favor the incumbent or that politician’s party.
Straight-ticket voting also takes a toll on the competitiveness of S.C. political races, observers say. About half of S.C. voters who show up at the polls on Election Day will push one button to vote for every member of a single party, regardless of who they are, instead of selecting candidates in every race.
The two voting trends are alarming, the leaders of the state’s Republican and Democratic parties agree, adding the state needs to rethink the way it draws district lines to make races more competitive.
“Seventy-five percent of the races are already settled before you get to the general election,” S.C. Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison said. “That’s not what a functional democracy should look like.”
Districts are not competitive because of “horrendous gerrymandering,” said S.C. GOP Chairman Matt Moore, referring to elected office holders drawing district lines to make it easier for them – or members of their party – to get re-elected.
Moore said he is glad his party controls the state Legislature, but the way district lines are drawn is taking its toll on the GOP nationally.
“It’s led to Republicans being in control of Congress, but being unsuccessful in presidential elections,” Moore said, adding the GOP’s difficulty in appealing to minority and younger voters stems from its candidates not having to campaign for their votes at home.
More competitive districts “would force candidates to go out and talk to people who don’t look like them.”
Competitive S.C. races rare
Republicans have controlled the S.C. Legislature since 2000 and the governor’s office since 2003. The last Democrat to win a statewide office was Jim Rex, elected S.C. superintendent of education in 2006.
Republicans and Democrats alike have benefited from redistricting, a process completed every 10 years after a U.S. Census.
“There are no fingers to be pointed. Both parties do this,” said Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon, noting gerrymandered districts helped S.C. Democrats ensure they would win some districts as the GOP took control of the State House.
The result of redistricting has been districts dominated by single political parties. Primaries can be competitive. But voters have fewer choices in the general election.
This year, for example, voters in only 48 out of 170 state legislative races – or 28 percent – have more than one political party’s candidate to choose from in November, according to an analysis by The State.
And 85 state legislative incumbents – 33 Democrats and 52 Republicans – are slated to coast to re-election in November without facing any opposition, in either the June primaries or the general election.
Those statistics have not changed much in a decade.
A lack of competitive races has a downside, said Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, who said he supports redistricting efforts that would make general elections more competitive.
“You are going to be responsive to those who elect you,” Massey said. “When you don’t have to talk with different people, when you don’t have to go to folks who think differently or look differently than you to ask for support in elections, in most cases, those folks aren’t going to have a seat at the table.”
Making S.C. races more competitive would “lead to more civility (and) to people not having as harsh of rhetoric.”
Half of S.C. voters cast straight tickets
A lack of competitive races also discourages candidates from running, Democratic and Republican activists say.
“People don’t want to run because they don’t want to embarrass themselves by losing,” said Bree Maxwell, 31, president of the Young Democrats of South Carolina. “It makes it harder to get young people involved. ... There should be no reason why we have safe Republican districts and safe Democratic districts.”
GOP activist Jonathan Hoffman, 40, of Charleston said having safe districts has its benefits. It means candidates and the political parties can focus their efforts – and money – on the few remaining competitive races.
But there is a downside, Hoffmon added. Competitive districts make it easier to recruit young candidates – and young candidates attract young voters, which the GOP needs to address some of its demographic challenges.
Another trend – straight-party voting – also contributes to political races being less competitive.
In the last four general election cycles, roughly half of S.C. voters cast straight-ticket ballots – pushing one button to pick a slate of candidates from the same party.
South Carolina is one of nine states that allows straight-ticket voting. Since 1994, 11 states have banned straight-party voting.
The option to vote a straight-party ticket is helpful to some voters who use it as an “information shortcut” – a way to pick candidates that likely align with the voter’s values, Winthrop’s Huffmon said.
“On the flip side, it does make it harder for challengers to move up,” he added. “It means that people aren’t getting a lot of information and they’re able to skip over races.”
One way to make S.C. races more competitive, Moore and Harrison say, is to end lawmakers’ control over the process of drawing district lines.
The GOP and Democratic party leaders suggest a nonpartisan or bipartisan panel draw district lines, instead of lawmakers.
Massey, R-Edgefield, said convincing lawmakers to cede their influence over the redistricting process – and their political futures – would be a heavy lift. Even he would be “reluctant to give up that authority to an outside group.”
But Massey said he would support ending straight-party voting.
“I don’t think it’s too much to ask people to take 30 seconds to push all the buttons,” he said. But, he added, there will be “partisans on both sides that are going to go ballistic over that if you try to change it.”
S.C. straight-ticket voting
When S.C. voters go to the polls in November, about half likely will push one button – automatically picking a slate of Democratic or Republican, or third-party, candidates without reviewing who is running in each race. A look at how many S.C. voters voted straight-party tickets in recent general elections:
2014: 50 percent
2012: 48 percent
2010: 49 percent
2008: 49 percent
Few choices at S.C. polls
Voters in more than half of S.C. legislative districts will have only one candidate or one party to choose on November’s ballot. A look at the competitiveness – or lack thereof – of S.C. State House races, by the numbers:
48: Districts with candidates from more than one party running
52: Districts where Republican incumbents have no opposition; another district has a Republican newcomer who faced no opposition
33: Districts where Democratic incumbents have no opposition
55: Districts with candidates from more than one party running
44: Districts where Republican incumbents had no opposition; three districts had Republican newcomers who faced no opposition
30: Districts where Democratic incumbents had no opposition
SOURCE: An analysis of S.C. State Election Commission data