COLUMBIA — In 2008, Republicans in Lexington County won 25 of 28 partisan races – from president of the United States to register of deeds – in part because more than a quarter of the county’s 110,433 voters pushed one button and voted for every Republican candidate.
But this year, that could be a problem for some Republicans.
Lexington County has eight Republicans running for office this year who are not on the ballot as Republicans. They were disqualified from the June primary elections – along with about 250 other candidates across the state – by a state Supreme Court ruling.
The eight have resurrected their campaigns as petition candidates, meaning they won’t be associated with a political party on the ballot. Now, they have to convince voters to “vote for me, not a party” – upending years of voting habits.
“That is my life, keeping people from (voting a straight-party ticket),” said Katrina Shealy, a petition candidate trying to unseat state Sen. Jake Knotts, R-Lexington. “I go door to door every day … encouraging people not to vote straight-party ticket. That is our message.”
South Carolina is one of 16 states that allows straight-party ticket voting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Nearly half of all S.C. votes in the 2008 election – which set a record for voter turnout – were straight-party ticket votes. Of those, 53 percent went to Democrats and 45 percent went to Republicans.
“It helps the down-ticket races strongly,” Scott Huffmon, a political science professor at Winthrop University, said, referring to voters who just pull the “R” or “D” lever. “People often know, ‘I’m going to vote for the Democrat or Republican for (president), but they don’t know a lot of the other races and so voting straight ticket means the person doesn’t really have to think about it. The party gets all the votes down the ticket.”
‘Not the year’ for a straight-party ticket
In conservative South Carolina, every-four-year presidential politics coupled with straight-party ticket voting have been a boon to Republicans. But what is usually an advantage for Republican candidates has turned into a major disadvantage for Republican petition candidates.
And it is an issue across the state – from Lexington to Pickens to York counties.
One loosely organized group is attempting a campaign to convince voters not to cast straight-party ballots, mostly focusing on the Upstate. Operation Lost Vote has spent about $10,000 so far on its campaign, including roughly $7,000 that has gone to try to convince voters not to vote a straight-party ticket, said Karen Martin, one of the group’s organizers and an organizer of the Spartanburg Tea Party.
The group has written suggested scripts for volunteers for petition candidates to read when knocking on doors, including the line: “Please vote for Independence by voting Independent.”
The group also has commissioned a direct-mail piece and made it available to any petition candidate for free, as long as they pay the shipping cost. The mail piece says the removal of 250 candidates from the primaries by the court was “likely the most corrupt action ever taken by South Carolina politicians” and tells voters “your only real opportunity to fight back is to NOT vote Straight Ticket on Nov 6.”
So far, the only candidate to use the mail piece is Gaye Holt, a petition candidate running against incumbent state Rep. Mike Forrester, R-Spartanburg, in District 34.
But others are weighing in on the issue.
U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-Laurens, has written a letter urging “patriots” not to vote a straight-party ticket in November.
“I caution you this year from pulling a straight Republican Party ticket that may, or may not, accurately reflect your values and beliefs,” Duncan wrote in the letter that Operation Lost Vote officials hope to distribute statewide. “What I ask of you today is to join me in looking at all the candidates, one by one, and making a determination for yourself who should be serving in public office. This is not the year to pull a straight-party ticket.”
Ray Felder, a petition candidate running in House District 26 in Fort Mill, said she wants state Republican and Democratic party leaders to encourage voters not to vote a straight-party ticket. “This is truly a nonpartisan issue,” she said. “We are all faced with this.”
Issue for GOP
The campaign against straight-party ballots has created a conflict for state Republican Party leaders.
A GOP officer who endorses anyone other than the Republican candidate normally loses his or her party post, according to party rules. This year, however, the party’s executive committee has voted to allow GOP officers to spurn Republican nominees and endorse petition candidates. The state Republican Party’s executive committee went so far as to endorse formally Shealy, the petition candidate challenging Lexington Republican incumbent Knotts, who some blame for the primary disqualification debacle.
But state Republican chairman Chad Connelly says the GOP will not tell voters to avoid straight-party ticket voting.
“We’ve tried to be welcoming of everybody, tried to encourage everybody running,” he said. “We’ve been more than accommodating.”
Democrats have fewer petition candidates than Republicans, and party leaders plan to promote straight-party voting.
“We are going full speed ahead with the promotion to pull that lever,” said Amanda Loveday, executive director of the state Democratic Party. “We have a handful of petition candidates with no Democrat on the ballot, so we are encouraging people to vote straight ticket and fill out the rest of their ballot for that person.”
In some races, straight-party ticket voting could have less of an impact.
Several state House races, for example, have no Republican candidates on the ballot. If a voter chooses to vote a straight Republican Party ticket, the voting machine will notify the voter that they did not make a selection in the House race because there was no Republican on the ballot.
Also, when voting a straight-party ticket, the machine will give you an overview of every candidate you voted for, allowing you to make changes before casting your vote.
Despite the presence of seven petition candidates on the Pickens County ballot, Pickens GOP chairman Phillip Bowers said he still will encourage voters in his Upstate county to cast straight-party tickets.
“The most important race this year is the presidential race, and I want to ensure we get every vote possible,” Bowers said.