Editorial Roundup: South Carolina

Recent editorials from South Carolina newspapers:

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Oct. 18

The Times and Democrat on essential Election Day workers:

The coronavirus emergency has changed so many things. Voting is one of them. Lines of people are voting early via absentee ballot in order to avoid going to a polling place on Election Day.

But in 2-1/2 weeks, the majority of people will go to the polls on Nov. 3 and cast ballots the same as always – kind of. The procedures at polling places have changed to conform to the coronavirus safety protocol. The State Election Commission and county election officials are taking steps including providing masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, sanitizing wipes and disposable cotton swabs for making touchscreen selections.

The changes have made the role of poll manager even more challenging. And, in fact, around South Carolina just finding people to be poll managers has been a challenge. That’s largely because some of those normally working as managers have opted out in 2020 to avoid potential exposure to the coronavirus.

That has had state and county election officials looking for poll managers for November. The election commission’s www.scvotes.gov website has a section that reads: “If you are willing and able to serve, South Carolina needs you. The fact is we must have poll managers to have elections.”

In Orangeburg County, Voter Registration and Elections Director Aurora Smalls said she is pleased with the response of people to the call for poll managers. Most of the regular workers have chosen to stay on and more than enough new people have signed on to fill vacancies.

“We have really gotten a lot of people,” Smalls said, expressing hope that all those having completed the assessment and training will serve not only for this election but for future votes.

No further applications for the November election are being taken at this time, she said. After November, an interested person can again apply to be a poll manager.

It’s important, but not lucrative, work:

— Poll managers (and poll manager assistants) are paid a total of $165: $60 for attending training, plus $15 for COVID-19 training, and $75 for working on Election Day, plus $15 for additional COVID-19-related duties.

— Clerks (the lead poll manager) are paid $225: poll manager pay, plus $60 for additional training and responsibilities.

Poll manager pay is considered per diem and does not constitute wages. Individuals receiving unemployment benefits will not be required to report the earnings when filing their weekly unemployment insurance claims, and the per diem will not count against their allowed earnings.

Smalls is predicting turnout will be heavy on Election Day, so the poll managers are likely to earn their money.

Of note in 2020, election officials may be receiving volunteer help as well.

The South Carolina Supreme Court has issued an order that provides for six hours of training credit to any attorney who volunteers to be a poll worker on Election Day. Attorneys are required to get additional training periodically to maintain their legal license.

Lawyers must work the entire day on Nov. 3, from 7 a.m. poll opening to 7 p.m. poll closing, minus regular breaks, and can’t take any payment to get the continuing legal education credit, according to the order.

Voting is one of the most important things a person can do as a citizen. Those working at the polls are integral to making the voting process work. It’s good to see Orangeburg County people step up to meet the need.

Online: https://thetandd.com

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Oct. 17

The Post and Courier on a judge's ruling that the state's Commerce Department violated open records laws:

South Carolina has always allowed state and local agencies to hide too much information from the public, and it has given the Commerce Department extra room to keep the public in the dark when it gives away our money to entice companies to our state.

Yet the agency’s responses to Freedom of Information requests about its incentives still read more like a stand-up comedian’s send-up of government secrecy than a serious attempt to comply with its obligations under state law.

State law makes it clear that the “information of a personal nature” that agencies can withhold from the public involves such things as a company’s annual receipts, names and contact information of citizens with disabilities, and 911 recordings of dying victims. Yet when Commerce responded to requests last year for documents about incentives it gave Singapore-based Giti Tires, it first redacted the name of the company’s contact person. And the names of company officials who submitted applications for the incentives, and the person who witnessed the signatures. And the names of the lawyers representing the company.

State law makes it clear that confidential, proprietary information that may be hidden from the public has to be … confidential … and proprietary. Yet in response to that same FOI request, Commerce redacted the amount of money the company received from the federal government.

State law allows the agency to withhold a great deal of information while it is competing with other states to recruit companies to South Carolina. Yet long after the incentive agreement was concluded and Giti was up and running, Commerce redacted the value of job-development tax credits it was providing, and how much the company promised to pay in wages, which factors into what sort of incentives it can receive.

When Sen. Dick Harpootlian sued over those responses, the agency defended itself by saying, essentially: This is how we’ve always done things. And last week — after reviewing the unredacted copies of the documents and hearing testimony, including from a former Commerce research director who said the agency withheld too much information for her to conclude whether the state got a good deal — Circuit Judge Robert Hood affirmed the fact that this is indeed how the Commerce Department has always done things.

Then he dismantled the legal underpinnings of the agency’s “expansive” interpretation of the law.

As he explained in a 20-page order: “While the Court does not dispute Commerce’s contention that companies ‘are very private’ and, under normal circumstances, ‘do not have to reveal this information to the public,’ the question here is whether the public is entitled to disclosure of certain public information once these companies voluntarily seek and obtain public assistance. The economic incentive deals at issue here concern huge sums of block-grant funding, tax credits, and other public expenditures to the tune of tens of millions of public dollars.”

This is a great victory for anyone who wants to know how our government is spending our money. If the Commerce Department turns over the hidden information, as it was ordered to do. A spokeswoman told The Post and Courier’s Andrew Brown that the agency “respectfully disagrees” with the judge and is considering its legal options.

It would be nice to add the weight of the state Supreme Court to Judge Hood’s conclusions, but the law here is clear, and the Commerce Department does not need to waste the taxpayers’ money or the courts’ time on an appeal. If it can’t reach that conclusion on its own, it should get a push from the boss.

Although Gov. Henry McMaster’s spokesman is correct in saying that South Carolina can’t disarm itself in the economic recruitment competition with other states, Judge Hood is correct in saying that state agencies have to obey the law that was designed to give the public the information it needs to evaluate the job that the Commerce Department — and by extension, the governor — is doing. By ordering his department to stand down, Mr. McMaster can demonstrate the commitment to open government that has to date been a hallmark of his career.

Online: https://www.postandcourier.com/

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Oct. 15

The Index-Journal on South Carolina's fluctuating coronavirus numbers:

In case you have quit paying attention, you should know that South Carolina’s COVID-19 case numbers continue to fluctuate. In many ways we seem to be doing better, but then we approach the thousand-case mark and hover in the 800s and 700s.

What does this mean? What does this portend for the state? For the Lakelands?

Take a look across the lake at Presbyterian College and see if that school’s latest news gives cause for any concern. A small college in Clinton, which is attended by students from Greenwood and the Lakelands in general, PC this week pulled the plug on in-person classes because of a scary spike in cases.

From our Oct. 13 front-page story: “On Sunday, staff members decided to move to students taking classes solely online for two weeks, said Stacy Dyer, the college’s director of media relations. As of 11 a.m. Monday, the college was reporting 49 active COVID-19 cases, with 71 total cases since they started counting in August.”

This is not the time to let up on CDC guidelines and precautions. This is not the time to relax and get a false sense that we are emerging from the pandemic in South Carolina.

In fact, this might well be the time to double down on handwashing, mask-wearing, physical distancing and the like. Perhaps we can accept that these very steps have a direct correlation to any progress we have made toward reining in COVID-19 in this state. Thus, the more we practice these measures the more likely we are to see the number of cases and related deaths descend.

Online: http://www.indexjournal.com