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November 9, 2012

UPDATED at 5:52 p.m.: SC chief justice stops Richland County vote recount

A court hearing has not yet been set. But both sides’ written arguments are due to the court by noon Tuesday.

The state Supreme Court chief justice has overridden a lower court’s order that all ballots cast Tuesday in Richland County be recounted, just as the new tally had gotten underway.

Chief Justice Jean Toal stopped the recount about 4 p.m., just as it was starting. Her order supports a request filed earlier in the day by the state Republican Party. The GOP argued that a lower-court judge did not have the authority to order a recount that would affect the House District 75 race, won by Republican Kirkman Finlay over Democrat Joe McCulloch.

A court hearing has not yet been set. But both sides’ written arguments are due to the court by noon Tuesday.

All the ballots will remain in the custody of the State Law Enforcement Division, which seized them Thursday.

Reacting to a legal protest filed by McCulloch, Circuit Court Judge Casey Manning on Thursday ordered state officials to recount all ballots cast throughout the county on 35 races, the penny sales tax increase and a state constitutional question. After Finlay agreed to a recount, the state GOP contends Manning cannot intervene in a legislative election, specifically the House 75 race.

The Supreme Court’s order isn’t the only legal challenge of the election’s results.

A formal protest of the penny sales tax outcome was filed Thursday with the county election commission by attorney Rick Reames III of the Nexsen Pruet law firm. Reames declined to say who he is representing but said in a letter to the commission that the protest is based on the county failing to provide enough voting machines as required by state law.

Chairwoman Liz Crum said Friday afternoon that the commission will not take up the penny vote protest until other legal battles are settled. The penny tax passed by about 9,300 votes.

The dueling legal maneuvers, the protest and the recount combine to put the commission and the election in “a holding pattern,” Crum told The State newspaper. “We’re going to do whatever we’re told to do by the courts.”

The state-run recount was delayed Friday in part to allow State Law Enforcement Division agents to pick up five voting machines from five precincts whose votes had not been tallied, according to Crum and S.C. Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire.

The machines had been ready to use but never were made available to voters, Crum said. That means they could not have affected the recount, though it shows that not all the allotted machines were made available to voters, she said.

In the case before the Supreme Court, the GOP petition argues that even if Manning had the power to intervene in a legislative race, he does not have the authority to order a recount.

“Therefore,” the petition states, “the (Supreme) court should enjoin the State Election Commission from recounting votes ... and it should direct the circuit court to cease exercising jurisdiction over any election-based dispute involving a seat for the House of Representatives.”

Republican Party executive director Matt Moore said Thursday he did not object to the recount.

In announcing the petition today, Moore said, “There are clear legal provisions and procedures which dictate the conduct of elections and the certification of results. These are not being followed.”

“The voters have spoken, all ballots have been counted and House District 75 selected Kirkman Finlay as its new representative,” he said in a statement today. "Too many laws have been ignored in Richland County, and we refuse to let it continue."

“No, they’re not,” state Democratic Party chairman Dick Harpootlian said of Moore’s assertion that the votes have been properly counted.

Harpootlian filed the lawsuit Thursday for McCulloch that triggered Manning's directive for a recount. He said his suit, backed by complaints from voters about insufficient voting machines and other missteps on Election Day, will yield an accurate count.

“There’s no harm in letting this go forward,” Harpootlian said of the recount. “It might not change anything. Why is it the Republicans are so afraid of a recount?”

He also argues the GOP has no legal standing to ask the high court to step in because they did not intervene legally in the initial suit filed in Richland County.

Efforts to reach Robert Bolchoz, the lawyer who filed the petition for the GOP, were unsuccessful.

In the wake of the legal challenges, the Richland County legislative delegation canceled a hearing it scheduled for Tuesday to review what went wrong. The delegation appoints county election commissioners as well as elections director Lillian McBride.

Meanwhile, a group of voters is calling for a new election because of the shortage of voting machines, long lines at the polls and questions about how those machines functioned and ballots were counted.

GOP consultant R.J. Shealy and unsuccessful County Council candidate Michael Letts say they will hold a news conference Monday to challenge other aspects of the election as well, including whether machine shortages happened mostly in areas that were likely to oppose the controversial penny sales tax ballot question.

Letts lost the County Council District 8 race to incumbent Jim Manning, according to results released Wednesday.

Documents: Jean Toal's order

Order Staying and Setting Time to File Returns[2]

SC GOP petition

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