COLUMBIA, S.C. — An effort to put candidates back on primary ballots in the wake of a state Supreme Court decision took several twists Tuesday, as a Senate committee advanced a bill that was immediately blocked, and the full Senate moved to fast-track an alternate route.
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved 16-2 a measure that would re-certify all non-incumbents who filed required financial paperwork online or in person by April 20, when including the five-day grace period.
Nearly 200 candidates were tossed off the ballot after the state’s high court ruled candidates had to turn the paper form over at the same time they signed other paperwork to become a major party candidate.
The two-week filing period closed March 30. Those tossed included 55 candidates for House and Senate.
Since 1991, state law has required candidates to turn in the “economic interest” form, intended to show voters any potential conflicts of interests, when they file their candidacy.
The confusion stems from a 2010 law requiring online filing. But that applied to incumbents’ annual April 15 deadline for submitting the forms. The court ruled state law still required those seeking office to file the paper form in person.
The proposal moved to the Senate floor Tuesday would retroactively give challengers the same deadline as incumbents.
Challengers are being treated differently in three ways – the deadline, the filing method and the penalty, said Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, arguing it’s an equal protection case.
Incumbents who file late are subject to a $100 fine, not ejected.
But the measure definitely requires preclearance by the U.S. Justice Department, which must approve any change in South Carolina election law as per the 1965 Voting Rights Act – a requirement that even supporters said makes the legislative fix practically impossible before the June 12 primaries.
Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, suggested joining a federal lawsuit, saying the only way to avoid delaying the primaries until August is for a federal judge to find state law unconstitutional and order a solution.
A hearing on a federal lawsuit filed last week is set for Thursday.
Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, proposed keeping the deadline at March 30 – but specifying that candidates could file the form online or in person at any time before that – to negate the need for preclearance.
Such a move is expected to put about one-third of invalidated candidates back on the ballots. Others argued federal approval could still be required.
“We might as well agree now that we’re going to delay the primaries,” Hutto said about changing the filing deadline. “There’s a more narrow way to do that.”
Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, put it more bluntly: “This is strictly grandstanding. This will never see the light of day,” he said. “It’s too easy to stop.” Ford, among the two objecting senators, agreed only a federal judge can solve the problem.
The committee approved the measure after adding an amendment by Sen. Jake Knotts, R-West Columbia, that he said would fix the confusion for future elections. Since candidates clearly received different filing instructions across the 46 counties, Knotts said the process should be handled by the state Election Commission, rather than the parties. Candidates would file at county election offices, operating uniformly. The committee agreed 13-7 after Knotts threatened to put an objection on the bill otherwise. Those voting against it said the idea has merit, but the measure needs to deal only with the current election’s remedy.
However, Knotts renewed his vow to block the measure on the floor after realizing the committee had changed the deadline, rather than keeping it at March 30 – prompting a heated exchange with the wife of U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson when the meeting ended.
Roxanne Wilson rushed up to him and scolded him, then pushed past a Statehouse security guard attempting to calm her down, yelling as she followed Knotts into his office. Her sister is running for Lexington County clerk of court but was among those removed from ballots. After emerging from Knotts’ closed office door, Wilson kissed him on the cheek, saying they’d made peace. Knotts holds Rep. Wilson’s former seat in the state Senate, and the two are friends.
“The date is the date. They’re allowing people to break the law,” Knotts said afterward, noting it’s been in effect for 21 years. He said it’s the parties’ fault for giving candidates bad information, but candidates should take it upon themselves to know the law. “You don’t reward those people who intentionally violated the law or didn’t look it up.”
Knotts’ primary opponent, former Lexington County GOP Chairwoman Katrina Shealy, was among those booted from the ballot. Knotts said he’s fine with her being on the ballot, but not if she violated the law.
The full Senate then opted for a different track.
They will try Wednesday to tack the measure – without Knotts’ amendment – onto an unrelated election bill that cleared the House in February 2011. Senators voted 38-0 to give special priority status to the bill, up for so-called “third reading” on the floor.
If the Senate approves the amended version, it would return to the House to decide whether to agree to the changes.