Nearly a dozen politicians who lost elections in June could win new terms in November.
They represent a new class of S.C. politicians: The unelected.
Consider the case of Greenwood County.
In May, news broke that five Greenwood County Council members had taken home an extra $1,000 a month for “in-district expenses,” money the politicians did not have to account for. Over three years, the council members had spent a combined $147,000.
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County residents were outraged. The spending became a huge campaign issue, and, in the June 12 Republican primary, two of those council members – Patrick Moody and Bob Jennings – lost.
It was textbook democracy. Voters, upset with a decision by their elected officials, removed them from office.
But come November, Moody and Jennings could be on the general election ballot, with capital “Rs” beside their names. Their challengers, the ones who won the June primary, still may be on the ballot but only as petition candidates – if they are able to jump through lots of legal hoops to get there.
“The people spoke, and their voice was taken away,” said John Lumley, a Greenwood business owner who said he voted for Steven Brown, who defeated Moody. “I’m as mad as hell.”
Lumley isn’t alone.
Across the state, at least 14 candidates – for offices including coroner, county council, state representative and state senator – face challenges that would nullify their wins in June’s primary, challenges that would resurrect their defeated opponents as the victors. Eight of the 14 defeated incumbents. All of the cases are being contested in the courts, with several court dates scheduled over the next few weeks.
It is just the latest outbreak of 2012’s election chaos.
A May state Supreme Court decision removed nearly 200 candidates from the June primary because they had not filed their paperwork properly.
Now, in a handful of races across the state, the Supreme Court decision could lead to the creation of a new class of politician – the unelected – raising questions about the rights of voters vs. the rule of law.
All but one of the 14 candidates are Republicans. But, in most cases, the lawsuits challenging their wins were brought on behalf of Democrats.
To some, that may seem like an odd twist.
For nearly two years, S.C. Democrats have been beating the drum of voting rights, attacking Republicans for passing a law requiring voters to show a photo ID before they can vote. The law, Democrats argue, disenfranchises thousands of voters by not allowing them to vote.
But if the largely Democratic election lawsuits succeed, the votes of thousands of South Carolinians will be thrown out.
S.C. Democratic Party chairman Dick Harpootlian sees no contradiction. “It’s not disenfranchisement. It’s enfranchisement – making sure voters have the chance to vote for legal candidates in November.”
Upholding the law?
At the core of 2012’s election chaos has been the “statement of economic interests” that every candidate is required to file. It includes any income that a candidate gets from public money.
State law requires candidates to file the statements online and in person with their county election officials. However, many candidates only filed their statements online because, they say, that is what state officials told them to do.
The Supreme Court ruled that was against the law, ordering every candidate who did not file a paper copy off the ballot. The ruling did not affect incumbents, who are covered by a different law.
In most cases, the disqualified candidates had earned no money from the public to report.
Democrats say that’s not the point. Instead, they say Republican Party officials botched their primary and now want to break the law.
“I’m sensitive to the public and their right to vote ... but what’s more important is making sure nobody is violating the law,” said state Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, an attorney who has filed lawsuits in Greenville, Dorchester and Pickens counties to disqualify Republican candidates. “(The Supreme Court) did not make any decision that is taking away anybody’s rights. They made a decision that upholds the law.”
Most of the candidates who won in the June primary but face the threat of disqualification already have taken steps to ensure they will appear on the November ballot, regardless of how the court rules. They have filled petitions with signatures from voters that, if certified by election officials, will put them on the ballot as independent petition candidates.
‘Have the primary all over again’
But in a presidential election year, party politics matter more than ever.
Turnout will be higher than in June, including many voters who did not vote in the primary. But many of those voters – as many as half – will cast straight-party ballots, costing petition candidates who will be on the ballot without any party affiliation.
“If I was able to stay on as a Republican – there is no Democratic opposition – it would have been much easier in November,” said Brown, the Greenwood Republican who defeated incumbent Councilman Moody. “If I am decertified, state law allows Mr. Moody to come back and to become the Republican nominee. If that happens, we will have the primary all over again.”
Moody, for his part, acted just as shocked.
“I would have never thought it would come to this. I feel like we’ve had the election and, as far as I’m concerned it’s over, and now you are telling me it’s possibly not,” he said, adding he does not know if he would accept the GOP nomination if Brown is disqualified. “I really don’t know how I feel about that.”
In all, six GOP primary winners in Greenwood County could to be disqualified. Three – including Brown, who says he expects to be disqualified – defeated incumbents. But state Republican chairman Chad Connelly says it is likely he will have to disqualify all six.
“We had to follow the rule of law that the Supreme Court gave us, that took the ballot and the vote away from the people,” Connelly said.
‘What are we doing?’
Voters in other counties stand to be affected as well.
In Dorchester County, financial planner Sean Bennett took 60 percent of the vote in the Senate District 38 primary, easily defeating Republican incumbent Mike Rose – despite being outspent $446,000 to $67,000.
In a sworn affidavit, Tony Piscatella, the Dorchester Republican Party treasurer, said Bennett filed a paper copy of his statement of economic interests. But Bennett’s paperwork is missing. Bennett since has replaced the missing paperwork with a copy that he made when he filed for office, and Piscatella has sworn that it is a “true and accurate” copy.
Last week, however, Dorchester GOP chairwoman Carroll S. Duncan said fellow Republican Piscatella lied. She disqualified Bennett.
The next day, Marci Andino, executive director of the State Election Commission, said Duncan had no authority to disqualify Bennett. Only the state party can do that, Andino said.
Meanwhile, the Dorchester County Democratic Party has sued, asking a judge to disqualify all “non-incumbent Republicans,” including Bennett. A court hearing is scheduled for Aug. 6.
Bennett has intervened in the lawsuit, asking the judge to certify him as the GOP nominee. Rose has intervened as well, asking the judge to make him the Republican nominee.
If that happens, there is a good chance Rose will return to the Senate next year, despite the fact that 60 percent of voters in the June GOP primary don’t want him there.
“When I heard that Bennett lawyered up and intervened in the lawsuit, three days later I did the same,” Rose said. “If he’s going to be in it, I’m going to be in it.”
Bennett said he is confident. Still, he is frustrated.
“What are we doing? We had an election, the people voiced their will,” Bennett said.
Much the same scenario is playing out in the Upstate’s Pickens County.
There, Republican challenger Ed Harris defeated incumbent GOP state Rep. B.R. Skelton. “You might say I humiliated him by 75 votes,” Harris said.
But Skelton challenged those election results to the state Republican Party’s executive committee, contending Harris did not file a paper copy of his financial statement. Harris said he had, pointing to the testimony of Pickens GOP chairman Phillip Bowers, who says Harris filed everything correctly.
The executive committee voted unanimously to reject Skelton’s protest.
But when Skelton took his case to the state Supreme Court, state party chairman Connelly reversed the executive committee’s decision, making Skelton the GOP’s nominee.
However, it’s not over.
On Aug. 10, Harris will ask a judge to stop the state Republican Party from disqualifying him.
“You can’t just change the result of an election for no reason,” said Stephen Brown, Harris’ attorney. “The chairman of a political party can’t change it on his own,”
Attempts to reach Skelton to comment were unsuccessful.
But his attorney, Rep. Smith, says the Republican Party executive committee “made a political decision, not a legal one.”
Connelly, the state Republican chairman, said he disqualified Harris because he could not find the hard copy of his statement of economic interest.
If that’s the case, Harris says it is only because GOP officials conspired to keep him on the ballot, a conspiracy he doubts.
Said Harris, “The only conspiracy that was here was a bunch of voters got together and decided to put (Skelton) out of office.”
But, in this tumultuous election year, that might not be enough.