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June 11, 2012

Ill-fated primary gasps to finish line (+Survey)

You might have a primary election to vote in today — but, then again, you might not.

You might have a primary election to vote in today — but, then again, you might not.

Of the 2,747,542 registered voters in South Carolina, 435,631 — or 16 percent — have nothing to vote for during today’s Democratic and Republican primaries. That’s because many of the candidates running for office where those South Carolinians live were removed from the ballot because they used their computers, not their hands, to file campaign paperwork.

The state Supreme Court said that was against the law — paperwork must be submitted by hand in person — and removed about 250 candidates from the ballot. The result is that 284 voting precincts in 14 counties will be closed today, including every precinct in Allendale and Clarendon counties.

The political fallout still is developing, but it has not discriminated between Democrats and Republicans.

In Clarendon and Sumter counties, House District 64, a reliably Democratic seat, had both candidates removed from the Democratic ballot. As a result, barring an independent petition candidate, Republican George Gray, a 25-year-old history teacher, could be the only person on the November general election ballot.

In Charleston County, Senate District 41, which Republican Glenn McConnell held for three decades before he replaced Ken Ard as lieutenant governor, has lost three of its four GOP candidates.

The fourth candidate, Paul Thurmond, son of the late legendary U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, could be removed from the ballot today depending on how an S.C. judge rules. That would leave Paul Tinkler, a Democratic Charleston city councilman, the only person on the ballot come November.

In Oconee County, residents might not have a sheriff in November. Sheriff James E. Singleton is retiring, and all four Republicans vying to replace him have been removed. No one else filed for the seat, meaning it will be available to whoever can compile enough signatures to get on the ballot as a petition candidate.

“It’s been very aggravating,” Oconee County GOP chairman R. Eddie Adams said. “The real damage is the fact that these people, campaigning hard for two or three months, are now denied the right to finish the campaign.”

Not every race was canceled.

Three GOP candidates are trying to unseat state Sen. Ronnie Cromer in Senate District 18, which includes much of Lexington County as well as Newberry and Union counties, including Rich Bolen, the former chairman of the Lexington Republican Party, and Kara Gormley-Meador, a former reporter for WIS-TV.

In Greenville County, two state Senate committee chairman face tough challenges: incumbent Republicans David Thomas and Mike Fair.

Meanwhile, in Spartanburg County, first-term Republican state Sen. Lee Bright is in a close race with former GOP state Sen. John Hawkins — a race so tight that Republican Gov. Nikki Haley took time to campaign for Bright Monday in Spartanburg.

Most of the disqualified candidates were first-time office seekers. Incumbents, who were exempt from the court ruling because they are covered under a different law, were not affected — leading some to wonder if the process would discourage would-be candidates from running for office in the future.

“It should,” said Dick Harpootlian, chairman of the S.C. Democratic Party. “Here we have people willing — Republicans and Democrats — willing to undergo the tremendous ... sacrifices of time to run for public office, being prohibited from doing it because of a technical screw-up by the Legislature.

“I would encourage folks to run for the (GOP-controlled) Legislature so we have somebody up there that actually reads this stuff before they vote on it.”

For all its drama, today’s primary almost did not happen at all.

John Pettigrew — who, as a former mayor of Edgefield, House lawmaker, county administrator and staffer for the late Sen. Thurmond, figured to be a serious challenger to state Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield — was one of five disqualified candidates who asked a federal judge to halt today’s primary on the grounds that it violated the federal Voting Rights Act.

U.S. District Judge Cameron Currie hastily convened a three-judge panel via conference call Monday afternoon to hear attorneys argue the case but the federal judges eventually denied the motion.

It was, at least, the sixth time since March that a court has ruled on something related to today’s primary.

And it may not be the last. “I’m going to consider some of my options and keep fighting,” Pettigrew said Monday after the ruling. “We can always go back to court to have the election overturned.”

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