In South Carolina’s capital city, major votes are underway on critical issues such as school choice, healthcare, criminal justice, and public spending. As the “ayes” and nays” are counted, the public can follow along in real time to see how each member is voting and know if the bill has passed. Such information is vital to keeping citizens informed and allowing them to hold public officials accountable.
However, for most of the state’s history, voting records were not available to the public in South Carolina. In 2008, the South Carolina Policy Council published a report showing that legislative votes were rarely recorded, which would start a years-long battle for reform. Ultimately, it would be the steadfast determination and political skill of a new State Representative and later Gov. Nikki Haley that would help achieve this historic change, bringing long-overdue transparency to state government.
Haley began her political journey in the state Legislature, quickly irritating her colleagues by voting to sustain almost all the governor’s line-item budget vetoes in 2005. “These are taxpayer dollars we’re voting on, and it’s our responsibility to be conservative,” Haley remarked at the time, according to a Post and Courier profile.
Haley’s disgust with the political culture in Columbia that allowed members to vote by voice and avoid accountabilitywould become central in her public service career.
“Instead of calling the roll and recording each member’s vote, the vast majority of the time the House and Senate would pass bills by voice vote,” Haley wrote in her book Can’t is Not an Option. “It was a fundamental violation of what we were supposed to be doing, which was representing the people. How could the voters judge us without knowing how we voted?”
“The final straw for me came in 2008 when I watched as the members of the House voted themselves a retirement pay increase by a voice vote,” Haley continued. “To this day, you can’t find a single legislator who will say he or she voted for the bill. It was at that point that I discovered my mission for my tenure in the South Carolina Legislature: making it possible for the voters to know how their legislators voted. The system was a violation of every notion of accountability I had ever known.”
After the Policy Council revealed that just 5% of floor votes were being recorded, then-Rep. Haley filed legislation to make recorded roll-call votes mandatory for all bills and joint resolutions.
Her fellow Republican lawmakers seethed. She was stripped of her committee assignments and from her role as majority whip, in an attempted public humiliation. Instead, transparency would become a winning issue in Haley’s 2010 bid for the Governor’s Mansion.
Haley was considered a longshot in the 2010 governor’s race. But voters rewarded her promises of a dramatically more open and transparent government with a come-from-behind surprise win.
In a huge win for transparency, Gov. Haley in April of 2011 signed the bill requiring roll call voting.
“This is about accountability in South Carolina,” Haley said at the bill signing. “And this is about the people having the right to know what their elected officials are doing all the time because elected officials work for the people and not the other way around.”
In 2015, Haley and the Policy Council teamed up to blast the Legislature’s effort to weaken and subvert the law. Once again, Haley and transparency won out, with the Legislature backing down.
Haley continued to make government accountability and ethics reform central in her nearly two terms as governor. She did not just champion high ethical stands; she lived by it.
In 2011, Haley created the S.C. Office of Inspector General, tasked with detecting, exposing and preventing fraud, waste, abuse, mismanagement and misconduct in executive agencies, including the creation of a tipline for state workers to allow for anonymous reporting of government malfeasance. She was ahead of her time, helping, for example, to reform South Carolina’s fragmented approach to cracking down on opioid abuse.
As governor, Haley also established a commission to strengthen state ethics and open records laws. In 2016, Governor Haley ordered all agencies to conduct internal audits.
Haley brought transparency to the state budget in 2016 when she required the creation of annual report on earmark spending, which is when lawmakers send money to an agency without its request, and mandated certain agencies verify that earmark funds benefit the public before funding projects – two efforts supported by the Policy Council.
In her final State-of-the-State address, Haley reflected on her battles for open government. “We brought a level of accountability to state government that never existed before, and that legislators now show their votes on the record, disclose who pays them, and no longer police themselves.”
In making South Carolina government more open, Haley proved fighting for ethical, open, and transparent government can be a political winner. No matter how her bid for the presidency turns out, Haley injecting a need for moregovernment transparency and accountability into the national dialog, is a winning move for us all.
Dallas Woodhouse is the South Carolina Policy Council’s executive director.