South Carolina’s primary election season – already marred by three lawsuits, 180 disqualified candidates and a congressman’s wife yelling at a state senator – could be extended.
A panel of three federal judges will hear arguments Monday about whether to delay South Carolina’s June 12 primary elections because of concerns the state may have violated the federal Voting Rights Act.
It’s a case that U.S. District Judge Cameron Currie – a former chief deputy state attorney general, law professor and attorney with nearly 37 years of experience – described this way:
“It’s all very confusing.”
The case was filed by Columbia attorney Todd Kincannon on behalf of Amanda Somers, a candidate for state Senate District 5 in Greenville County.
As of Thursday afternoon, those were the only facts that were not in dispute.
No one – not the judge, not the plaintiff and not the attorney who filed the suit – could say for certain Thursday who was being sued and what they were being sued for.
Among the parties listed in the lawsuit, in addition to Somers:
• All persons entitled to vote under the uniformed and overseas citizens absentee voting act
• All improperly filed candidates
• All affected state and county political parties
• All affected election officials not otherwise named
Kincannon originally filed the suit to get his client, Somers, back on the June 12 ballot. Then, he found out Somers never had been removed from the ballot in the first place.
Monday – after learning of this – Kincannon sent an email to the judge that “shifted the focus” of the case, according to Currie, and expanded on what she said was an already “very broad and vague” case.
During a hearing Thursday at the U.S. Courthouse in Columbia, Currie ordered Kincannon to file a memo by 4 p.m. today that outlines exactly what he is arguing and what he wants the court to do. Of all the arguments Kincannon mentioned Thursday, Currie said only one, in her opinion, had any merit: the question of whether South Carolina violated federal law in the way it sent ballots to U.S. soldiers serving overseas.
Federal law requires county election commissions to send ballots for federal elections to soldiers overseas at least 45 days before the election. Federal law also requires that any change in South Carolina’s election processes must be approved by the U.S. Justice Department in advance.
Kincannon says the State Election Commission changed its process for sending those ballots overseas, and that change was not approved by the Justice Department. That change is a violation of the federal Voting Rights Act, meaning the election must be delayed, he argued.
The State Election Commission denies this.
“The State Election Commission has done everything to comply,” said Liz Crum, the commission’s attorney.
Federal law says any Voting Rights Act violations must be decided by a panel of three judges – a panel that Currie said she hopes to assemble by Monday.
Last week, the state Supreme Court – in a unanimous, controversial decision – said that any candidate – except incumbents – who did not file a “hard” copy of required election paperwork should be removed from the ballot. The order disqualified 180 candidates, both Republican and Democratic.
State senators killed legislation Wednesday that would have allowed at least some of those candidates back on the ballot, leading many would-be challengers to Kincannon’s federal lawsuit as their only hope.
But during Thursday’s hearing – which lasted nearly two hours – no one said anything about trying to get any of the disqualified candidates back on the ballot. Afterward, one disqualified candidate walked up to Kincannon and asked what he was supposed to do.
“I can’t help you,” Kincannon told him.
But other lawsuits could be coming.
Thursday’s hearing attracted several prominent attorneys as spectators. One of them – attorney Rob Tyson, who most recently defended House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, in a lawsuit challenging the redrawing of the state’s House districts – said he could be filing a lawsuit on behalf of some disqualified candidates but declined to be more specific.
In Florence County, local Democrats have sued local Republicans because the Democrats said the Republicans did not follow the Supreme Court’s rules issued last week. Florence Republicans did not disqualify any candidates, while Florence Democrats disqualified eight candidates.
Also, John Pettigrew, who was disqualified from challenging state Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, in the June 12 GOP primary was allowed to join Kincannon’s lawsuit, but it was unclear what he would argue during the case.
Judge Currie said she knows there is “a lot of chaos out there,” and warned Kincannon there was no simple solution.
“He (Kincannon) thinks the federal court can fix this problem ... and he is sorely mistaken,” she said.
Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.