The election to replace former Columbia City Councilman E.W. Cromartie will be held in 26 days if the state attorney general and the U.S. Justice Department don't veto it.
Cromartie resigned his long-held seat Tuesday after agreeing to plead guilty to federal tax evasion charges.
City Council members voted unanimously Wednesday to hold the election to replace him April 6, the same day as the city's election for mayor and three other council seats.
But council members did so blindly, not sure what to believe among the various opinions, legal and otherwise, thrust at them during a contentious five-hour meeting at City Hall.
The city's own attorney, who would not speak publicly until council members voted to force him to, said state and city law require that the election be held on June 15 in order to properly post public notice of the election and give prospective candidates time to file for the office.
Before city attorney Ken Gaines could finish, the Richland County legislative delegation faxed a letter to City Hall from Patrick Dennis, staff attorney for the House Judiciary Committee, saying state law requires the city to hold the election on the date of the city's next general election, April 6.
Three of the six remaining council members - Sam Davis, Tameika Isaac Devine and Mayor Bob Coble - wanted the election on April 6. Council members Kirkman Finlay and Daniel Rickenmann wanted it on June 15. One council member, Belinda Gergel, was undecided.
Facing the prospect of a tie vote, which would accomplish nothing and, under state law, could invite the embarrassing prospect of the governor's stepping in to schedule an election, council members agreed to designate state Attorney General Henry McMaster as the referee.
State Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, has asked McMaster's office for an opinion, and council members have agreed to abide by whatever it says.
"There are differences of opinion, and some of those differences fell along racial lines," Coble said after the meeting. "For 20 years I've tried to work to bring people together, and maybe the hardest vote we've ever had to do, that was today where we had a unanimous vote on something I hope people will perceive as being fair."
Attorney general spokesman Mark Plowden said the office could not say when the opinion would be ready.
But any election must first be approved by the U.S. Justice Department as part of a review process established by the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Rather than wait on McMaster's opinion, council members voted to go ahead and schedule the election for April 6. That way, they could get a head start on the federal approval process. If McMaster vetoes the April 6 date, City Council members said, they would cancel the District 2 election and reschedule it.
The Justice Department would not comment about the city's election, other than to say they are "aware of the situation," said Alejandro Miyar, a department spokesman in Washington, D.C.
But the vote raises questions about the logistics of changing an election that has been on the calendar for years in less than 30 days.
Absentee voting began Monday, and, so far, 10 people have voted. None of those people lives in District 2, Richland County Election Commission officials said. No absentee ballots have been printed, so there are no absentee ballots pending in the return mail.
The filing period for the April 6 District 2 race will open at noon Monday and close at noon March 19. So it won't be clear who the candidates are until March 19. If a District 2 resident shows up to vote absentee tomorrow, would that he or she be allowed to vote?
"I don't know how to answer that right now," said Mike Cinnamon, director of the Richland County Election Commission.
Underneath Wednesday's discussions about fairness and the rights of District 2 residents was the impact the District 2 turnout would have on the mayor's race, specifically as it has to do with race.
District 2 is 73 percent black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and votes mostly Democratic.
Of the three leading candidates for mayor, two are white - Kirkman Finlay and Steve Morrison - and one, Steve Benjamin, is black.
While the mayor's race is a nonpartisan election, Morrison and Benjamin have been active in Democratic politics and are considered to be the main draws in District 2.
An April 6 election for a District 2 council member would increase voter turnout in that majority black district - which city election watchers think would benefit Benjamin.
Benjamin told council members Wednesday that scheduling the election after April 6 would deny District 2 residents representation for a "significant period of time" and "actually amounts to disenfranchisement."
Morrison, too, addressed City Council, urging them to schedule an election for June 15 to maintain "an orderly democratic process."
After the meeting, Benjamin and Morrison denied using their mayoral ambitions to influence the District 2 election process.
"That's ridiculous," Benjamin said.
Morrison said he felt the residents of District 2 "were not being properly respected by this prospect being put in place today, and it has nothing to do whatsoever with my ambitions to be mayor."
King Jeffcoat, a District 2 resident and former Richland 1 school board member, attended Wednesday's meeting and said the mayoral candidates "were looking out for their interests."
Jeffcoat said he asked City Council to hold the election April 6 to ensure that District 2 residents would be represented in the city's budget process, which must be completed by June 30.
"If we don't have representation at that particular time, that weakens the chance of getting funds to do things in District 2," he said.
But District 2 resident Jean Denman said an April 6 election would not give her enough time to choose a qualified candidate.
"I would rather not be represented than be represented by somebody who was inappropriate," she said.