Three advisory questions are on the GOP primary ballot in South Carolina. What are they?

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCBD)- Voters across South Carolina will head to the polls Saturday for the first-in-the-South Republican presidential primary.

In addition to choosing who South Carolinians want as the GOP nominee for president, voters will be asked to answer three advisory questions on voter registration, judicial reform, and changes related to awarding financial damages in a lawsuit.

These nonbinding, yes/no questions are designed to help shape the party’s agenda and gauge public support for various policy proposals.

“These questions were submitted to our office by the political party’s leadership and these questions don’t have any impact on state law,” said John Michael Catalano, a spokesperson for the State Election Commission.

Why there were no questions posed to voters in the Feb. 3 Democratic primary?

Catalano explained that both parties submitted questions to the commission but were initially told that advisory questions could only be placed on statewide primary ballots in June.

This is the result of a 2011 case in which the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that state law prohibited “including anything other than the names of candidates for a qualifying political party’s nominee for President of the United States” on a presidential preference primary ballot.

“But in early January, and this was after the ballot for the Democratic party had already been finalized, the South Carolina Republican Party requested an emergency injunction from the Richland County Circuit Court, and that court ordered that the advisory questions should be allowed for the 2024 Republican presidential primary,” Catalano said.

Here’s what Republican primary voters will be asked to decide:

Q1: Should South Carolina law be changed to give people the right to register to vote with the political party of their choice?

This ballot question asks whether state law should be amended to give people the option to register by political party in the state.

South Carolina currently does not require individuals to register by party affiliation and holds an open primary contest. This means that the state’s 3.2 million registered voters can choose to participate in either the Republican or Democratic presidential primary.

The question comes as outside groups have been pushing people who did not vote in the Democratic primary to back former S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley in Saturday’s contest over former president Donald Trump, which has raised concerns inside the Republican party.

“The South Carolina Republican Party (SCGOP) believes that the most important thing we do as Republicans is picking our candidate for President of the United States,” SCGOP said. “We believe this immensely important responsibility should be left to Republicans and that Democrats should have no part in choosing our nominees.”

However, the state’s top Republican leader, Gov. Henry McMaster, said he sees no need to close the primaries.

“I think that’s an unnecessary impediment,” McMaster said Tuesday. “I know people believe that, theoretically, they could see a large number of people crossing over just to cause mischief and vote against somebody but that hasn’t happened in fact in our state.”

Q2: Should South Carolina adopt reforms to increase the independence and accountability of our judiciary by improving transparency
and reducing conflicts of interest in the process of reviewing judicial qualifications and electing judges?

Reforming the state’s judiciary, specifically the process for selecting judges has emerged as a contentious issue at the Statehouse, and Republican party leaders want South Carolinians to weigh in.

The question asks whether voters believe there should be greater “transparency and accountability” in the judicial selection process in the state.

Currently, state lawmakers are tasked with choosing judges from a pool of up to three candidates deemed qualified by the Judicial Merit Selection Commission (JMSC) following a screening process. The judicial vetting panel is made up of 10 members, six of those members are required by statute to be members of the General Assembly and all six are currently lawyer-legislators.

Critics argue that lawyer-legislators — about one-third of lawmakers — should not be allowed to screen judges that they will argue cases before as this creates potential conflicts of interest.

Reformers are split on the specifics of changing the judicial vetting system, but one proposal that has gained traction would be to give the state’s executive branch, specifically the governor, more power in the process.

Q3: Should it be an immediate legislative priority to protect South Carolina’s competitiveness and small businesses by changing state law so that a person’s responsibility for financial damages in a lawsuit is based on that person’s actual share of responsibility?

Lastly, primary voters will be asked whether the state’s liability laws should be changed so that parties are only held responsible for financial damages that are proportional to their share of fault in civil lawsuits.

State party leaders say tort reform is “essential” for the protection of small businesses in South Carolina.

“Right now, people with the ‘deepest pockets’ can be held responsible for financial damages far beyond any level of blame or fault they may bear,” SCGOP said. “This question simply asks if you’d like to see a proportional relationship between legal liability and financial responsibility.”

The proposed South Carolina Justice Act would make it so that any party “whose conduct is determined to be less than fifty percent of the total fault” is only held liable for that same percentage of damages.

The bill has been referred to a Judiciary subcommittee for consideration.