FLORENCE, S.C. — Nearly two months ago, both the lawyers arguing a case before the state Supreme Court and the justices themselves wondered whether a lawsuit over the filing of financial documents that contain little information would plunge the 2012 elections into chaos.
It did. Two lawsuits before the high court led to almost 250 candidates being kicked off the ballot, some after they spent tens of thousands of dollars campaigning. Another judge took a primary win away from a Democratic congressional candidate after deciding the state Election Commission didn’t count all the votes it was supposed to.
The primary season likely limps to an end Tuesday with runoffs in two congressional races, three legislative races and a handful of county contests. All signs point to a modern low in turnout as some challengers gear up for a petition process.
The combination of candidates kicked off the ballot – every single non-incumbent Republican in Oconee County was disqualified, leaving the party with no primary – and the lack of a statewide race meant less than 12 percent of voters turned out for the primaries June 12. Election officials said 110,000 fewer votes were cast this year than in 2000, the last time there wasn’t a statewide race, even though South Carolina added more than 350,000 voters over those 12 years.
The state Supreme Court has taken plenty of heat for its two decisions that disqualified nearly 250 candidates for offices from sheriff to county council to the Statehouse.
The Supreme Court strictly interpreted a law that fully went into effect this election cycle requiring candidates to file financial statements electronically. The court ruled that state law also required the statement to be filed at the same time as papers to get on the ballot. Incumbents didn’t have that requirement, leading justice Costa Pleicones to quip that his colleagues were debating what should be called the “Incumbent Candidate Private Relief Bill.”
Several candidates blamed their local and state parties. Lawmakers didn’t take up any emergency legislation that might have cleared up the matter, leaving huge holes in the ballot. Already, 105 of the 148 Statehouse incumbents are likely to return to Columbia because they have no opposition in the fall general election.
Candidates kicked off the ballot do have a couple of ways to get back on it. They can try to win as a write-in, or they can petition their way onto the ballot in November. Volunteers collected signatures at polling places across the state June 12. State law requires 5 percent of the voters in the area that the office represents to sign a petition to get someone on the ballot.
Petition candidates are listed without a party, and that makes it an uphill climb to be elected. Nearly 50 percent of voters in the 2008 and 2010 general election voted a straight party ticket.
“I think it will be different this year,” said Joe Dugan, the chairman of the Myrtle Beach Tea Party, who with other tea party members collected signatures at polling places for all candidates, whether they agreed with their politics or not. “Because of this scandal, the public is extremely aware of petition candidates and they are going to be angry at the people in power who kept them off the ballot.”
The primary season also had an unprecedented court decision at its end. On Friday, a judge ordered a runoff in the Democratic primary for the state’s new 7th Congressional District. The Election Commission declared Gloria Bromell Tinubu the winner last week, but supporters of second-place finisher Preston Brittain sued, saying it was undemocratic not to count every vote. The state Election Commission refused to count votes for state Rep. Ted Vick, D-Chesterfield, who dropped out after a drunken-driving arrest in late May.
Bromell Tinubu has not ruled out appealing the ruling setting a runoff Tuesday.
Nancy Blackmon Lee has been a political junkie all her life and decided to run for office in Darlington County this fall. She got advice from a number of state and local party executives and election workers to find out when and where she needed to file her financial statement, which contains only her name, address and phone number. But she didn’t do it right by the court’s rules and is off the ballot.
She said what happened erodes the trust citizens have in the system, just like the disputed presidential election in 2000 or questions over whether to use ID cards.
“I love this country,” Lee said. “I don’t want us to be like some foreign country where the people vote, but it doesn’t matter.”