CHARLESTON — A three-judge federal panel heard more than six hours of testimony and argument Tuesday in a lawsuit challenging the nomination of Paul Thurmond, a son of the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, for a state Senate seat. But the judges didn’t seem inclined to remove his name from the ballot.
“Your remedy is to strike Mr. Thurmond from the ballot. What would that do?” U.S. District Judge David Norton asked.
State Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian, representing the plaintiff, told the judges the way Thurmond won the GOP nomination in District 41 constituted a change in voting law that must be approved by the U.S. Justice Department under the Voting Rights Act.
The 1965 act requires federal approval for voting changes in states with a history of discrimination and Section 5 of the act freezes such changes until they are approved.
“I can’t figure out how striking Mr. Thurmond advances the concerns of Section 5,” said U.S. District Judge Henry Floyd.
Harpootlian argued that a state Supreme Court ruling last month allowing a special GOP primary in Thurmond’s district was a change in state election law.
Thurmond won the June primary but later was thrown off the ballot because he, as well as 250 other candidates statewide, did not file actual paperwork for his candidacy. Thurmond filed electronically and the court decided that the “Republican Party in good faith, albeit erroneously, believed Thurmond was exempt” from the paperwork provision.
Thurmond has said his job as a part-time prosecutor in North Charleston made him a public official exempt from the provision.
The high court ruled that because Thurmond was already the nominee, there could be a special primary. There were no other special primaries for the other candidates disqualified.
Harpootlian argued Tuesday that the high court had essentially changed state election law by allowing such a “good faith” exemption.
“We are not attempting to disagree or subvert what the South Carolina Supreme Court did,” he argued. “But you are here to decide whether the ruling was a change. We say there was a change.”
The judges were told that the ruling was the first time the high court had weighed in on a state election law on holding primaries when nominees are disqualified.
“This is a case of first impression,” not a change in existing election law, said Thurmond’s attorney H. Christopher Coates.
Thurmond attended the hearing but did not address the panel of judges, who also included U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel. Thurmond did not speak to reporters leaving the hearing.
The plaintiff in the case is Reginald Williams, a black Democratic voter from the senate district.
“I believe there was a change in the law,” he told the court. “Most of my Democratic friends were not allowed to be in a primary and Mr. Thurmond got an exception.”
The plaintiffs have suggested several remedies. They suggest either that Thurmond be booted off the general election ballot or that the election not be certified for 45 days after the election to make sure all overseas and military ballots are counted. They have also suggested the election be delayed until the Justice Department can review any election law changes.
The judges did not say when they might rule.