COLUMBIA (AP) South Carolina Democrats on March 1 began abandoning what started as a bipartisan effort to reconstruct the state’s constitution, with state party leaders calling the proposal an attempt to scale back women’s rights across the state.
But chief sponsors of the bills, filed in both the state House and Senate, said the proposal had nothing to do with abortion or reproductive rights and everything to do with fixing an out-of-balance power structure.
Republican Rep. Micah Caskey on March 1 announced the filing of a pair of bills that call for a new state constitutional convention. Caskey, head of the House Freshman Caucus, said a state government “overhaul” is needed to rebalance the current system, which vests most power in state lawmakers and relatively little in the executive branch.
Caskey’s release included comments from at least one Democratic lawmaker, Will Wheeler, who said the current constitution, drafted “during the darkest days of this State’s history,” is “no model for efficiency and effective government.” Several other Democrats’ names appeared on the message, as well as the bills.
South Carolina’s current constitution was written in the aftermath of Reconstruction. In 1895, avowed white supremacist and then-U.S. Sen. Ben Tillman called a constitutional convention to enact “the sole cause of our being here,” namely to deny voting rights to blacks. He played on the fear that blacks could eventually yield a powerful vote and perhaps win the governorship.
In the years since the state’s governors have complained about their limited powers.
The state Democratic Party jumped on the effort to change the constitution, calling it “attempt to oppress every woman in South Carolina” but giving no specifics as to what that meant. In a release, Chairman Trav Robertson went on to wonder why South Carolinians would trust lawmakers “with our Constitution when they are just as bad as Pitchfork Ben Tillman?”
Robertson later told The Associated Press the measure is an attempt to lessen women’s access to reproductive rights. In a subsequent message on Twitter, the Democratic Party noted that “While the Republicans didn’t explicitly mention banning women’s reproductive rights in their proposal, we all know it’s on their agenda. Giving Republicans the power to rewrite our constitution would present them with the opportunity to permanently restrict women’s rights.”
Throughout the day, several Democrats removed their names from the bill, with six remaining by the afternoon. No debate has been scheduled on the bills, which have been referred to their respective judiciary committees.
Asked about Democrats’ reaction to the measure, Caskey said he and other sponsors merely wanted to overhaul a 123-year-old system and create “three co-equal branches of government.”
“We know that this scares those that are entrenched in our current political system,” Caskey told AP. “But, to be clear, nothing that we’re attempting to do can curtail the rights and freedoms enshrined in our U.S. Constitution, no matter what hyper-partisan political hacks may say.”