Columbia to decide whether felons can be on ballot

City election officials will decide today whether two Columbia City Council candidates who are convicted felons will be put on the city's April 6 ballot.

Only then will the ballots go to the printer.

A 1997 amendment to the state Constitution disqualifies a convicted felon from being elected or serving in any office unless 15 years have passed since the completion of his or her sentence.

First-time mayoral candidate Irwin D. Wilson and council candidate Antonio Williams, who has run for public office at least four times, are convicted felons.

Their criminal records came to light after The State conducted SLED background checks on all 17 candidates who signed up to run in next month's city elections.

The ballot includes a race for mayor and three seats on the seven-member council.

Richland County elections director Mike Cinnamon said Thursday the newspaper's questions about Wilson and Williams prompted him to go to state officials to determine whether they are eligible to run.

But it is up to the city election commission to decide whether their names will be on the ballot, he said.

In Wilson's case, the answer depends on whether the prohibition applies to people convicted before the law was passed.

A spokesman for the State Election Commission said he thinks it does.

Wilson was convicted of third-degree criminal sexual conduct in February 1994, three years before the law was put on the books.

He finished his sentence 13 years ago, based on information provided by the S.C. Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services.

Wilson said Thursday the paperwork he signed at City Hall when he filed to run wasn't clear.

"My past has no bearing on my ability to make sound decisions," he added. "I say let the people decide."

As for Williams, he finished his sentence 17 years ago. Based on the time passed since he was released from parole, he appears eligible.

Chris Whitmire, a spokesman for the State Election Commission, said he did not know of another case where a candidate's eligibility was called into question because of his prison record.

That may be because the law is not enforced.

"I doubt if a handful of people in the state understand there is a prohibition against felons serving in office" in some cases, said Howard Duvall, former head of the S.C. Municipal Association.

"There may be a loophole in that there is no enforcement of this, except for a complaint by a citizen."

City clerk Erika Salley said earlier this week that all the candidates signed a form stating they were eligible and paid a filing fee.

She provided a copy of a blank form, which reads: "I have never been convicted of, pled guilty or nolo contendere to a felony or an offense against the S.C. election laws. If so, I have been pardoned under state or federal law or it has been 15 years or more after the completed service of the sentence, including probation and parole time."

Williams, who is running citywide against Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine, was convicted on two felony counts, grand larceny and burglary in the third degree, in 1990.

Gary Baum, with the S.C. Election Commission, said most cities and counties don't conduct criminal background checks on candidates, though some do.

Most rely on candidates to tell the truth, he said.

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