CORRECTION: The story, published Sunday, should have said two Democratic candidates for Florence City Council were disqualified as a result of last weeks Supreme Court ruling. Also, the story should have said the Democratic Primary for House District 64 had no candidate left on the ballot because of the ruling. There is a Republican candidate for the seat.
After 30 years, Raye Felder stepped down from managing the insurance business she started so she could run for the S.C. House of Representatives.
She filed for office on a Tuesday, signing her name on a piece of paper at a Starbucks in Fort Mill and sliding it across the table to Glenn McCall, chairman of the York County Republican Party. It was a happy moment because Felder was the only Republican to file for the seat and she would face no Democratic opposition in November.
But when Felder handed that paper to McCall, she did not hand him a statement of economic interest, the form designed to let voters know if a candidate has any income or business dealings involving public money. She filed that form online a few weeks later, complying or so she thought with a new state law passed in 2010 requiring candidates to file the forms online.
Felder was removed from the ballot Friday, following a state Supreme Court decision earlier in the week that says candidates must file paper copies of those economic interest statements at the same time as they file to run for office.
The suit was brought by two men from Lexington County, one of whom Robert Barger was paid $500 to do campaign work for Sen. Jake Knotts, an incumbent who was facing a tough primary election but is now unopposed because his opponent has been removed because of the ruling. Barger and Knotts have denied conspiring to throw Knotts opposition off the ballot.
Now, one out of every five candidates has been removed from the June 12 primary ballot in one of the biggest election debacles in S.C. history.
In response, state senators called an emergency meeting for Tuesday, and a disqualified candidate has filed a federal lawsuit, the first line of which reads, This case is one of the strangest cases in the history of American election law.
Incumbents like Knotts were exempt from the court ruling because of a 1991 law change. Now many of them seem assured of easy victories.
In other primaries among them the Democratic primary for House District 64 in Clarendon County not one candidate remains on the ballot.
This is worse than communist China, said John Crangle, S.C. director of the citizens advocacy group Common Cause. Even in communist China or communist North Korea, there is one candidate on the ballot.
In Fort Mill, where Felder was running, the residents of House District 26 now will see only one name on the ballot in November: Jeremy Walters, a 40-year-old high school dropout, who says he decided to run for office to get back at a family court judge who ruled against him in a divorce case.
After York County Republican leaders showed little interest in his candidacy, Walters filed as a Libertarian, a small party that does not have primaries and is not affected by the Supreme Court decision.
Whos got the last laugh now, right? he said.
In 1991, just one year after five S.C. lawmakers were indicted for selling their votes, lawmakers passed sweeping changes in state ethics laws.
One change required that candidates must file a statement of economic interests for the preceding calendar year at the same time and with the same official with whom the candidate files a declaration of candidacy or petition for nomination.
Legislators and other public officials already holding office were exempted. They already had statements of economic interest on file with the State Ethics Commission, so it seemed redundant to have them do it twice, said Sen. Larry Martin, R-Oconee, who was a House member in 1991 when the law was changed.
(The law) was designed to keep from filling the file drawers up with the same form, he said.
Nineteen years later, state Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Richland, joined with then-state Rep. Nikki Haley, R-Lexington, to pass a bill that said all disclosures and reports must be filed using an Internet-based filing system. Then-Gov. Mark Sanford signed the bill into law on May 28, 2010 meaning the 2012 election cycle was the first time the new law was in effect for state races.
Now candidates faced two seemingly conflicting, laws: Were they required to file their paperwork with their party or file it online with the State Ethics Commission?
A lot of candidates acting on the advice of state and local party officials and state election officials filed their economic interest statements online. They thought that was what the law told them to do.
Frankly, the Statement of Economic Interest wasnt even on the radar when I filed the bill and when we debated it, Ballentine wrote in an email to The State newspaper. He said the goal was to make all candidates file their campaign contribution statements online. That way, people would not have to come to Columbia and request paper copies at the State Ethics Commission.
But Michael Anderson and Robert Barger, two Lexington County voters, noticed this spring how many candidates filed their statements online and did not file hard copies with the state parties. They filed a lawsuit, asking the state to remove some candidates for not following the law.
This matter implicates the validity of this States election process and, thus, is a matter of critical public importance, they wrote in their complaint.
Before the state Supreme Court last week, party officials argued the two laws were in direct conflict and could not be reconciled.
In the past, when this has been an issue, the Supreme Court has ruled that the newer law takes precedence. But, in a decision last week that shocked the S.C. political world, the court ruled that the laws did not conflict.
The newer law, the one requiring electronic filing, is not part of the process that qualifies an individual for inclusion on the ballot, the court ruled.
The upshot: Nearly 200 candidates were disqualified.
And incumbents, because they were exempted in 1991, were protected from the requirement.
The lawsuit mentions several candidates from around the state as examples of people who broke the law.
It also mentions Katrina Shealy, who in 2008 nearly unseated Knotts in a bruising primary fight.
Knotts paid Barger $500 on March 30 as part of a District 23 Labor Sign Crew, according to Knotts latest campaign disclosure report. But Barger told The State newspaper he did not file the lawsuit on Knotts behalf and said Knotts did not ask him to file it.
I would never do that. And he would never ask me to do that, Barger said, adding that he decided to file the lawsuit after overhearing some people at a restaurant bragging about not following the rules. I feel like across the board, if you are too lazy or you dont care enough about this position to go out there and find out what the rules are and follow the rules ... If you dont take the job any more serious than that, I dont want you.
Knotts said he knew both Anderson and Barger because they live in Lexington County. But he denied asking them to file the lawsuit in an attempt to remove Shealy from the ballot.
Still, Knotts said he supports the decision.
And late last week, when state senators tried to pass a resolution to allow candidates back on the ballot, Knotts tried to block it.
Hey, look here, Im going to win anyway. Ive already got signs, I got mailing, Ive done it all, Knotts said. But, do I support the verdict? Yes. Nobody in this state ought to be able to run for office that cant follow the law and then expect to come up here and make laws. Whether it be my opponent or anybodys opponent.
Shealy declined to comment, saying only, Im just trying to stay out of it right now.
The court gave state political parties until noon Friday to enact its ruling and purge their list of candidates. Since most races are handled at the county level, each county political party had to decide who met the requirements.
This was not without controversy.
The Florence County Republican Party, for instance, certified all of its candidates as being eligible, despite the fact that many did not file paper copies of their statements of economic interest. The party put a statement on Facebook saying it accepted candidates who filed their statements online because thats what the state party had told it to do and therefore, it believe(s) that all of our candidates are qualified.
Florence County Republican Party chairman Bill Pickle said the party watched its candidates file statements online.
The ones that do not have hard copy filed then, right there as we watched them, Pickle said. Based on that, I did certify all of them.
But thats not what the court ruled, said Sheila C. Gallagher, who chairs the Florence County Democratic Party.
Florence Democrats did not certify eight candidates, including two candidates for two at-large Florence City Council seats while the two Republicans who filed who were certified.
I am going to find some remedy, Florence Democratic chair Gallagher told The State newspaper Friday. I hate that, in this day and age, everybody has to sue somebody, but this would rise to that level if it had to.
Saturday, Gallagher signed an affidavit and sent a letter to state Democratic Party chairman Dick Harpootlian saying that Florence County Republicans have elected to blatantly ignore the clear directive of the S.C. Supreme Court and demanded that Harpootlian take whatever legal action is necessary to enforce the Supreme Courts order.
A state Democratic Party spokeswoman said it would be up to the county party to file a lawsuit.
But Democrats might not have to sue.
The state Senate Judiciary Committee has an emergency meeting, scheduled for 10 a.m. Tuesday, to consider a bill that would retroactively treat incumbents and candidates the same meaning anyone who filed a statement of economic interest by April 15 would be qualified for the ballot
If it passes, the bill would put state Sen. Martins primary challenger, Rex Rice, back on the ballot.
He deserves the opportunity to be on the ballot and not be eliminated because of a technicality, Martin said Friday. I feel pretty confident of the outcome. I dont feel particularly threatened by it. But I think folks deserve that choice.
A petition candidate?
Felder, the York County House candidate who was disqualified, said she has no state-related assets and no family ties to any lobbyists. Her statement of economic interest was boring, she said.
It was pretty much my name and address, she said.
But filing it online cost her a spot on the ballot.
Felder said she plans to run as a petition candidate, a process that will require her to persuade thousands of people who live in her district to sign a petition supporting her candidacy. If she is successful, she would appear on the ballot in November, but without an R by her name.
Chad Connelly, chairman of the S.C. Republican Party, said Felder and any other Republican thrown off the ballot would have the state partys blessing to run as an independent.
People have already done a lot of work, he said. I wouldnt be surprised to see them look in another direction and do something that gets them on the ballot.
Walters said he is not concerned.
They (Republicans) were my party, and they came and found me, and they said, We already got our boy, you should just walk away, he said.
It didnt work out too good for them. They judged a book by its cover.
Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.