COLUMBIA — In a year when nearly 250 candidates statewide were tossed from primary ballots, petition candidates have a rare shot at winning in November.
Many of the 130 Republicans and 117 Democrats decertified in the wake of last month's state Supreme Court ruling on improperly filed paperwork are working to get back on the ballot this fall through a tedious, little-used process that is normally unsuccessful.
But this is no normal election cycle.
The ballot chaos over what many considered a paperwork technicality has galvanized would-be candidates and angered voters. The ousting left about 436,000 registered voters with no choice in last Tuesday's primaries. Nearly 300 polling places in 14 counties didn't even open.
About 70 of the tossed candidates were seeking House or Senate seats.
“I think that for the first time in history, we will have a good amount of petition candidates in the Statehouse next year,” said Amanda Loveday, director of the state Democratic Party. “People are frustrated with the situation. Petition candidates are out there working hard. I think this year will set a whole new precedent.”
Usually, there are only a few petition candidates in an election year, and it's been 22 years since one won state office, Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire said.
That distinction goes to former House member James “Bubba” Cromer.
The petition process requires gathering the signatures of at least 5 percent of a district's registered voters. The petitions – complete with signers' printed names, addresses and precinct information – must be turned in by noon July 16. Election officials must determine by Aug. 15 whether they earned a spot on the ballot.
“It's a very slow, paper process,” said Carol Tempel, a Democrat seeking a House seat representing James Island who is going door-to-door and holding a signing drop-in this weekend at a local senior center. “The good thing is, we're reaching voters more quickly than we might have. … People are asking, `Is this democracy?“’
Tempel, the former principal of Academic Magnet High, said she filed her “statement of economic interest” online in February, after hitting the fundraising threshold required to report campaign donations to the state Ethics Commission. But that was too soon. The high court ruled that state law mandates those seeking office to hand in the statement – designed to show voters any potential conflicts of interest – at the same time they file their intention to run. That two-week filing period ended March 30.
That law has been in place for 21 years, but a 2010 law change over online filings caused confusion.
Tempel was among nearly 55 candidates removed from the ballot within a week of the primary, after justices' follow-up ruling on candidates wrongly re-certified after their first order.
Both the Republican and Democratic parties are encouraging those booted from the ballots to run as petition candidates. Republican Party Chairman Chad Connelly said he expects local GOP parties to get involved in races to identify to voters which are Republican.
If they get on the ballot, petition candidates will be identified only as “petition,” and listed between the Republican and Democratic nominees – if there are any. The ballot toss-up left four House seats without any major-party candidate, giving petition candidates for those districts – representing areas of York, Berkeley and Horry counties – a clear shot at winning.
The biggest obstacle to petition candidates is straight-party voting. Anyone who votes along a party line would bypass those candidates completely.
Half of all voters chose the straight-party option in 2008 and 2010, Whitmire said.
Candidate hopefuls and party officials say a big part of fall campaigns will be asking people to vote on each race individually.
“We'll be educating voters, and on Election Day, rest assured there will be people at every polling place telling people, `Don't vote straight party,“’ said Katrina Shealy, who's seeking to run against state Sen. Jake Knotts in Lexington County.
The ballot dust-up stemmed from her GOP race, as two Lexington County voters filed the initial lawsuit over improperly filed financial forms. Shealy has testified she completed the written form but no one asked her to submit it when she filed for office March 16.
Shealy needs roughly 2,650 valid signatures. She already has more than enough, she said, but she's still collecting as a safety net, knowing some signatures will be disqualified.
The experience has created a sense of unity among ousted candidates, even would-be opponents.
Richard Cauthen, tossed from the Democratic ballot for Chester County sheriff, said six candidates removed from ballots in that county jointly ran half-page ads in the local newspaper, telling voters what happened and their need for signatures.
The potential candidates are working together to collect signatures for all their races.
“It's a hard thing to do, to help someone running against you. But this isn't about the election. This is about right and wrong to me, and people having a choice,” said Cauthen, who needs 1,055 signatures and says he's over halfway there.
Cauthen said he, like the others, followed instructions from local party officials when he paid his filing fee and signed paperwork to declare his candidacy, then went home and filed his economic statement online. He said he had no idea the lawsuit had anything to do with him, until his name was removed from the list of certified candidates.
Candidates have one month to get everything in, but Whitmire encourages candidates to do so early.
“It's a hard deadline. If they walk in at 12:01 they would be late. There's no excuse in the law for bad traffic or a family emergency,” he said.