ELECTION 2014: UPDATE -- Conservative PAC seeking legislative extension to primaries

Posted by JAMIE SELF on February 18, 2014 

Partisan Politics

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

LAUREN VICTORIA BURKE — ASSOCIATED PRESS

COLUMBIA -- An anti-Lindsey Graham group says the General Assembly needs to extend South Carolina's two-week primary runoff period to conform to a federal law that requires absentee ballots be mailed to overseas voters no later than 45 days before an election.

But a state Republican Party leader and state Election Commission spokesman say no problem exists with the state's two-week runoff after primaries when the leading candidate fails to get more than 50 percent of the vote.

The state already has in place a system for ensuring absentee voters can cast ballots in primary runoffs, they say. As the result of a 2006 law, absentee voters now receive two ballots at least 45 days before a primary that could lead to a runoff. On ballot is for the primary. The other is an “instant runoff ballot” where voters are asked to rank candidates. That ballot is counted only if there is a runoff. The second vote goes to the candidate in the runoff ranked highest by the absentee voter.

Bruce Carroll, chairman of Carolina Conservatives United, said he filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice saying South Carolina's two-week runoff time frame is a “clear violation of ... federal law and disenfranchises our overseas military residents.”

Carroll, whose group opposes Graham's U.S. Senate re-election bid, is pushing for the state to extend its runoff period to 60 days. Graham's five challengers in June’s GOP primary have said the best chance to beat Graham is to force him to a runoff by preventing him from getting more than 50 percent of the vote. Extending the deadline would give a runoff opponent more time to campaign.

Carroll cites a March 2013 letter from the federal Justice Department to state Attorney General Alan Wilson that takes issue with the state's calendar for federal special elections, but does not specifically challenge the two-week runoff time frame, said S.C. Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire. The letter describes two scenarios, including if there is a two-week runoff, where ballots cannot be sent to voters for the general special election in time to comply with the federal law.

The letter refers to the 1st District congressional race last year, a special election to fill the seat left vacant by Tim Scott's appointment to the U.S. Senate.

In that race, the primary runoff, which occurred two weeks after the primary, did not leave enough time to certify the winners and send an updated ballot to overseas voters 45 days prior to the election, Whitmire said.

To address the problem, the state came up with the idea of a mailing a ballot to voters meeting the 45-day deadline, then later mailing a second ballot once the candidates from the runoff were certified, he said.

In the 2013 letter, the Justice Department urged the state to “seek a permanent legislative solution that will ensure that its special elections calendar complies” with federal law.

No legislative action has been taken to address that issue, Whitmire said.

Carroll said he wants the General Assembly to pass legislation extending the runoff period to 60 days.

S.C. Republican Party Chairman Matt Moore criticized Carolina Conservatives United for taking issue with the state's election laws.

“I find it surprising and disappointing that any group claiming to be conservative would ask Eric Holder's Justice Department to declare South Carolina's election law null and void,” Moore said in an email response. “There's a process for changing our state laws, and this isn't how it's done.”

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