COLUMBIA — Days before South Carolina's primary, the state Supreme Court has issued a ruling that means even more candidates could be removed from the state's ballots, including some in Horry County.
The justices on Tuesday sided with Florence County Democrats, who sued county Republicans, alleging that the GOP hadn't abided by an earlier court ruling requiring candidates to simultaneously hand in financial and candidacy paperwork. That ruling had resulted in about 200 candidates being tossed from ballots statewide.
Attorneys contend that number would have been higher, had all party leaders complied. The court said its ruling Tuesday applies only to Florence County but warned other counties not to disobey its previous edict.
“To the extent other county political parties have improperly certified candidates, those parties ignore the decisions of this Court at their own peril,” the court wrote.
That means several more Horry County candidates could be disqualified from next week's primary election, including those non-incumbents who filed their Statement of Economic Interests forms -- which detail possible conflicts of interest -- online before filing their candidacy papers with the county party chairman.
Blake Hewitt, a candidate for State House District 105, said he is reviewing the court's decision, “but if I'm off the ballot, I won't be running as a petition candidate.”
Hewitt filed his SEI online the day before he filed his Statement of Intention of Candidacy at the county GOP headquarters. The court's ruling clarifies that non-incumbents must have filed both forms at the same time.
The decision also appears to impact the candidacy of Dennis DiSabato, a Republican running for State House District 56. DiSabato filed his SEI online five minutes before turning in his candidacy papers at the party headquarters. DiSabato could not be reached for comment.
Johnnie Bellamy, chairman of the Horry County GOP, must now determine which candidates are eligible for Tuesday's primary based on the latest court ruling. Bellamy could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Mike Connett, vice-chairman of the county’s party, said he believes the court’s decision will lead to further challenges throughout the election process.
“This rock hasn’t even been kicked over yet,” said Connett, who was disqualified from running for State House 105 because he did not properly file his paperwork. Connett said he blames local and state GOP leaders for failing to provide candidates with proper instructions and the S.C. Election Commission for failing to oversee the certification process.
“This is voter disenfranchisement at its worst,” Connett said. “This is a crime as far as I’m concerned.”
It is not clear how many candidates will be affected in Georgetown County. Jim Jerow, that county’s GOP chairman, said he was traveling Tuesday and did not have access to the information.
One local candidate said the court’s ruling could create further questions.
Larry Richardson, a Republican running for State House District 68, filed his SEI online with the state Ethics Commission prior to bringing his candidacy paperwork to the Horry County headquarters. Richardson said the commission’s online instructions directed him to print out a confirmation document showing he had filed his SEI. Richardson said the instructions were to take that confirmation document -- not the SEI itself -- to the filing location.
“I took the proof that I had filed online with me,” he said. “I did what the state Ethics Commission told me to do. We’ll just have to see what shakes out of the trees after all the lawyers get ahold of it.”
The justices gave Florence County Republicans until Wednesday to give elections officials a list of candidates who had submitted proof that they had filed their financial and candidacy paperwork simultaneously. The court said county officials should correct ballots if they can do so before voting next Tuesday. If not, the court said, election officials must post signs in polling places noting that votes cast for decertified candidates won't be counted.
At issue is a 1991 state law requiring candidates to turn in a “statement of economic interest” when they file their candidacy. The law exempted incumbents at all government levels, who must annually file the forms by April 15. Legislators say the law was written that way to avoid duplication in election years. But it contributed to confusion after a 2010 law required online filing. While the intent was to reduce paperwork, the Legislature didn't match up separate sections of the law pertaining to annual and candidate filing.
Last month, the high court ruled that the state law still requires those seeking office to file paperwork in person within the two-week filing period. It directed the parties to recertify only those who followed the rules and submit their revised candidate lists by May 4. Nearly 200 candidates were tossed statewide, but attorneys contend more would have been removed had all party leaders complied.
The Republicans' defense had centered on who's considered a public official. They argued that the definition covers those considering running for office, so the law requiring candidates to turn in an economic interest form at the same time they file to run doesn't apply.
Justices dismissed that claim, ruling Tuesday that Florence County Republicans blatantly disregarded the court's earlier ruling.
“The voters in this State rely on the political parties to ensure that only those individuals who are qualified candidates appear on the party primary ballots,” the court wrote. “We are disappointed in the County Republicans for failing to diligently perform this duty and for presenting an inaccurate statement to this Court concerning their actions in certifying candidates for the party primary.”
Republicans have until 9 a.m. to ask justices to reconsider their case. GOP attorney Kevin Hall did not immediately respond to a message Tuesday. In a statement, state GOP Chairman Chad Connelly said he was disappointed by the ruling, which he said has disenfranchised the state's voters.
“It's tragic that good citizens, both Republicans and Democrats, attempted to file as candidates, only to have their names tossed out over a technicality,” Connelly said. “Instead of seeing the law as the Legislature intended, the court created a `Frankenstein' – a set of hypertechnical rules that defy common sense and ignore the instructions of the state's own Ethics Commission.”
Justices also ordered Florence County Republicans to pay all costs of either the ballot changes or the signs.
The Sun News staff writer David Wren contributed to this report