Federal lawsuit challenges special SC primary

The Associated PressSeptember 26, 2012 

South Carolina should have sought federal approval before putting a previously disqualified state Senate candidate back on the ballot, just as it must for any changes in election law, according to a recently filed lawsuit.

Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, more than a dozen states including South Carolina must get U.S. Justice Department approval before making changes to their election laws. That same requirement means federal officials must review and approve a ruling by the state Supreme Court before GOP candidate Paul Thurmond’s name can go on ballots for upcoming runoff and general elections, voter Reginald Williams argued in the lawsuit filed Monday.

“Section 5 suspends all changes to state election law — however innocuous — until they have been precleared,” according to the lawsuit. “State and county election commission defendants may not enforce this/these change(s) until such time that preclearance is obtained.”

The same law has been at the center of lawsuits over South Carolina’s redrawn state House and congressional districts and voter ID requirements.

Thurmond, a former Charleston County councilman, has been seeking the GOP nomination in South Carolina’s state Senate District 41, a seat held for decades by now-Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell. The 31-year incumbent stepped down as Senate president pro tem earlier this year to assume his constitutional duty after former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard resigned.

Thurmond, who is the son of the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, was among hundreds of candidates removed from ballots earlier this year over improperly filed paperwork. Last week, the high court ruled that Thurmond became the GOP’s nominee when he was the lone Republican left on the June primary ballot after other candidates were tossed. As such, the court ruled, the state party had the right to hold another primary to replace their nominee after he was eventually disqualified.

The court said the party could therefore hold another primary, which Thurmond won last week. According to Williams’ lawsuit, that constitutes a voting procedure change, which he argues would trigger the federal approvals process.

Special elections weren’t held in any of the other nearly 250 races across the state where candidates had been decertified. State election officials told the GOP and Democratic parties that the decertified candidates had never officially been candidates, and concluded that a law allowing special primaries in cases of disqualified candidates didn’t apply. Last week, state Democratic Party chairman Dick Harpootlian – a Columbia attorney whose law firm also represents Williams – said the court’s ruling constituted “another chapter in the chaos called South Carolina elections.”

Thurmond is set to appear on an Oct. 2 primary runoff ballot against Sen. Walter Hundley, who has held the job for several months. The winner of that race faces Democrat Paul Tinkler on the general election ballot Nov. 6.

In an email, Thurmond looked ahead to the general election.

“At some point, the Democrats will be out of judges to run to, and the people of the 41st District will actually be able to have a choice in November,” Thurmond said.

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