Columbia | The state Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a special primary for the Republican nomination to fill the Senate seat long held by Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, possibly causing more chaos for South Carolina's elections less than seven weeks before voters go to the polls.
The court affirmed 3-2 a lower court ruling that threw former GOP nominee Paul Thurmond off the ballot but called for a special primary.
The state Election Commission had joined in the appeal, arguing Thurmond should be treated the same as other candidates knocked off the ballot by the high court's decisions in May and early June on improperly filed paperwork.
Special primaries weren't held in any of those nearly 250 races. The Election Commission told the Republican and Democratic parties that the decertified candidates were never officially candidates. It concluded then that a law allowing special primaries in cases of disqualified candidates didn't apply.
The high court decided that Thurmond was indeed disqualified, but based its ruling on him being declared the nominee.
The law clearly “intended to provide a mechanism for political parties to replace nominees prior to the general election,” wrote Chief Justice Jean Toal in the majority opinion. “It is equally clear that the General Assembly would not have intended for `disqualified' to be interpreted so narrowly that a political party is prevented from conducting any special primary to replace its nominee due to the improper certification of a nominee.”
Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire said the order doesn't necessarily refute the agency's interpretation of the law and justices' earlier rulings, since it doesn't address candidates removed from the ballot before the June 12 primaries. A future ruling would have to answer that.
“This is going to be lawsuit-palooza,” said Phil Bailey, spokesman for Senate Democrats. “Everybody should be going around saying, `Where's my special primary?“’
He accused the justices of carving out an exception for the son of the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond.
Their earlier decisions left other races without anyone from either party on the ballot, sparking an unprecedented number of petition candidates this year – those who will be on November ballots after gathering enough signatures, without any party beside their names.
“I'm furious,” Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian said of the ruling. “This is another chapter in the chaos called South Carolina elections. … Certainly, there are a number of third-world countries who are jealous of us.”
He blames the Election Commission, an agency whose board members are appointed by Republican Gov. Nikki Haley.
The state GOP, however, is extremely pleased with the ruling, said executive director Matt Moore.
“The Republican Party will absolutely have a nominee on the ballot in November,” he said, adding it's “hard to know whether or not any further primaries can be ordered.”
There's been plenty of finger-pointing in the primary chaos. Candidates have blamed the parties for not correctly telling them how to file for office, while the parties blamed the Election Commission. Others have blamed legislators for passing a law on electronic filing that failed to match up separate code sections, causing confusion. The high court has also received criticism for its earlier strict interpretations of the law, declaring that candidates had to turn over the paper “statement of economic interest” simultaneously with other candidacy forms, regardless of whether they filed online.
The rulings did not affect incumbents, who must submit the forms annually – online as per the 2010 law that caused the confusion. The judge ruled that as a former county councilman, Thurmond is not a public official with a current form on file.
Thurmond was the top vote-getter in Tuesday's special primary but failed to win the three-way race outright. A runoff is set for Oct. 2. The winner faces Democrat Paul Tinkler in November.
Thurmond did not immediately respond to email and phone messages left for comment.
Under federal law, absentee ballots to military service members must be mailed overseas within 45 days of an election. That's Saturday. For military voters from Senate District 41, their ballots won't include that race. Those ballots will explain why and note that another ballot will be mailed after the runoff, Whitmire said.
Thurmond was the lone candidate left on the June GOP primary ballot. Candidates tossed after the high court's earlier rulings included three other Republicans vying to replace McConnell. The 31-year incumbent stepped down as Senate president pro tem earlier this year to assume his constitutional duty after former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard resigned.