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Amending our state constitution

Posted: October 29, 2010 3:44 p.m.
Updated: November 1, 2010 5:00 a.m.

When you go to the polls tomorrow, there will be four constitutional amendment questions on the ballot that were approved by the General Assembly.  

Voters will decide whether South Carolina residents have constitutional rights to hunt and fish and vote by secret ballot in labor union elections.  There will also be two questions on the state's general and capital reserve funds. The full text of these proposed constitutional amendments are available on the State Election Commission’s website (www.scvotes.org).

These constitutional amendment questions are in addition to the local ballot questions that voters will also be asked to answer.

While some states allow a petition process for amendment to a state constitution, South Carolina can only amend its constitution through the legislature or by the legislature’s recommending a constitutional convention.  A constitutional amendment starts out as a joint resolution.  To be placed on the ballot, it requires a two-thirds vote of each chamber.  If the public answers the question in the affirmative, the proposed amendment comes back to the legislature and may be ratified in a second session, where it only requires a majority vote of each chamber.  Ratification is required for the amendment to become part of the constitution.

A constitutional amendment question can only be placed on a general election ballot. While some states limit the number of constitutional amendment questions that can be placed on any one ballot, South Carolina does not.

According to The South Carolina Encyclopedia, edited by Walter Edgar, South Carolina adopted its first constitution in 1776. There have been six constitutions adopted since then, the most recent being the constitution of 1895. Although there has not been a constitutional convention since then, South Carolina has amended the constitution of 1895 extensively with hundreds of amendments. Some political observers and academics today advocate having a new constitutional convention.

In order to convene a constitutional convention, two-thirds of the members of each chamber must vote to recommend it to the electorate. If a majority of the voters support a convention, then the General Assembly, at its next session, must provide by law for a convention and set out the process. The Constitution does provide that the convention will consist of a number of members equal to the most numerous branch of the General Assembly, or 124, which is the membership of the House of Representatives.

In addition to media editorials and information being disseminated by various organizations on the proposed amendments, two main sources of independent information on the constitutional amendments are the legislation, which can be found on the General Assembly’s website (www.scstatehouse.gov), and the “official” explanation found on the ballot itself.

This “official” explanation is crafted by the Constitutional Ballot Commission, which is created by law. The Commission consists of the Attorney General, the Director of the State Election Commission, and the Director of Legislative Council. It is this panel that decides if a more simplified or more detailed explanation of each constitutional amendment question is necessary or appropriate. If it is determined that an explanation is appropriate, the Commission is responsible for phrasing the explanation and submitting it to be placed on the ballot and making the explanation available to the news media at least ten days prior to the general election.

The constitutional amendment questions are important because they affect state policy and the rights of the citizens. I encourage everyone to take some time before going to the polls to study the amendments. With a little advance preparation, you will save yourself and your neighbors some time at the polls and have a much more positive voting experience because you’ll be more confident in how you answered the questions.

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