By Josh Goodman, Stateline Staff Writer
South Carolina voters head to the polls for primary elections today. What’s missing is most of the candidates.
Two decisions by the South Carolina Supreme Court — one in May and another earlier this month — removed more than 200 challengers for state legislature and local offices from today’s contests. Incumbent officeholders weren’t affected by the rulings.
As a result, the primaries will see vastly less competition than they otherwise would have. For example, in Republican-heavy Oconee County, a jurisdiction with 75,000 people, the GOP primary has been canceled entirely because all 11 non-incumbent Republicans were deemed ineligible. As the Associated Press reports, four seats for the state’s House of Representatives now have no Democrats or Republicans left on the ballot at all.
The court decisions were based on a technicality. Challengers in South Carolina are required to file financial disclosure forms at the same time they file forms declaring their candidacies with political party officials. Incumbent lawmakers are exempt from the requirement. Yet, as The State newspaper explained, many challengers believed a 2010 South Carolina law meant they should file financial disclosure forms online with the State Ethics Commission, instead of with the political parties.
The court removed candidates that didn’t file the forms simultaneously. In the ruling, the judges acknowledged the vast consequences of their decision, but said the law was clear.
After the May ruling, barred candidates looked for relief from the state legislature and from courts, but haven’t succeeded in winning reinstatement. Lawmakers debated an emergency law to offer candidates a way on the ballot, but didn’t end up acting.
Critics, including Governor Nikki Haley, have argued that legislators were content to allow the candidates to get knocked off the ballot, so that they wouldn’t face contested elections. Many of the aspirants who were removed are now scrambling to gather signatures, so that they can qualify as independent candidates in November.
South Carolina is far from the only state with a prominent ballot access controversy over the last six months. In Virginia, several leading Republicans presidential candidates — including Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum — didn’t qualify for the state’s primary, a result that highlighted its challenging signature-gathering requirements. Earlier this month, Michigan U.S. Representative Thaddeus McCotter, who had been considered a good bet for reelection, abandoned his campaign after a signature-gathering snafu left him off the ballot.
Still, nowhere has a ballot access development had as far-reaching consequences as South Carolina. “Through a technicality, the court has denied hundreds of people the right to run for office, and has essentially denied hundreds of thousands the right to participate in a free and fair election,” South Carolina U.S. Representative John Duncan wrote in a letter, according The State.