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SC Supreme Court denies GOP candidate's runoff election appeal

South Carolina Supreme Court Building In Columbia filer (copy)

The state Supreme Court has denied a challenge to the June 28, 2022, runoff results by a GOP candidate for state House of Representatives. File

COLUMBIA — The state Supreme Court has denied a challenge to the June 28 runoff results by a GOP candidate for state House of Representatives, citing a lack of evidence to prove the election was in doubt.

Brian Sweeney, a Surfside Beach insurance agent who sought the state District 106 seat in the GOP primary, filed a petition with the Supreme Court last month, asking the justices to void the primary runoff and order a new primary election be held.

On Aug. 2, the state Supreme Court made a ruling against the candidate's petition.

"The petition is denied because Petitioner has failed to provide any evidence of an irregularity or illegality that rendered the result of the election in doubt," according to the state Supreme Court.

In the June 28 runoff election, Sweeney lost to opponent Val Guest, an attorney from Murrells Inlet, by only 294 votes. Guest received 1,856 votes (54 percent), and Sweeney received 1,562 (46 percent).

Sweeney filed his initial protest of the runoff results to the state Republican Party on July 5, the Tuesday after the June 28 election. He based his challenge on a countywide error in Horry County in which Republican voters received Democratic absentee ballots prior to the June 28 primary runoff election.

During a July 7 state hearing in Columbia, the S.C. Republican Party Executive Committee voted to deny his appeal. Sweeney then filed a petition with the Supreme Court.

On June 24, four days before the primary runoff election, Horry County election officials announced that Republican voters in the county mistakenly received Democratic absentee ballots for that upcoming election.

Upon examination, it was determined that 1,377 Republican runoff voters in Horry County were incorrectly issued Democratic runoff ballots due to an error in the ballot printing and mailing process. The issue was reported to the State Election Commission.

In his petition to the Supreme Court, Sweeney alleged that 306 of those absentee voters in Horry County were eligible to vote in the District 106 runoff but were mailed the wrong absentee ballot. When replacement ballots were eventually mailed out, the voters were given three days or less to return their ballots.

Sweeney added that any voter who did not receive his replacement ballot on June 25 would receive his ballot the day before the election at the earliest, due to an intervening Sunday.

Sweeney said in his petition that he did not believe it was possible for all 306 absentee ballots to have arrived on time through the mail, due to reported nationwide delays in the U.S. Postal Service.

"While 20 replacement ballots purportedly did arrive in time to be counted, 286 Horry County citizens were deprived of the right to vote," Sweeney alleged in his petition. "While the mailing of the 306 replacement ballots was well-intentioned, it was simply too late to provide for a functional legal election. The result of this primary is unknowable."

According to the petition, Horry County voter data found that 20 mail-in ballots arrived by the June 28 deadline. Another 58 mail-in ballots arrived after that deadline, but before June 30.

Sweeney's petition alleged that, if it were assumed that all 306 misdirected ballots voted in Sweeney's favor, then he would have lost by only eight votes, since he officially lost by 294 votes. An eight-vote margin, less than 1 percent of the vote, would trigger a mandatory recount.

"Thus, it was still possible for Sweeney to win this election," the petition stated.

However, in its ruling, the Supreme Court ruled that there was a lack of sufficient evidence to render the election results in doubt.

"In the absence of fraud, a constitutional violation or a statute providing that an irregularity or illegality invalidates an election, this court will not set aside an election due to irregularities or illegalities unless the result was changed or rendered doubtful," according to the Supreme Court.

Sweeney issued a statement on Aug. 2 after the court denied his petition, saying that the court's decision does not hold that the runoff election was free from irregularities. However, he said, the decision holds that the irregularities have not "rendered the result of the election in doubt."

"Disappointing results to be sure, but God often works in mysterious ways," Sweeney said to his supporters. "I want to thank all of you for the support and encouragement you provided before, during and after the campaign. It means a lot."

The state Supreme Court’s rules do not allow for further review of its decision, according to Sweeney's attorney.

The reason for the S.C. GOP's Executive Committee's July 7 denial of Sweeney's appeal was not provided. Discussions took place during executive session.

During the June 14 primary election, Guest won with 2,632 votes, and Sweeney came in second place, receiving 2,185 votes. A runoff election was required because no single candidate received 50 percent or more of the vote.

Guest will face Democratic candidate Ryan Thompson for the District 106 seat in November.

Mark Lazarus, Republican candidate for Horry County Council chairman, also attempted to challenge the primary runoff election results based on this countywide error. He lost to incumbent Johnny Gardner by a margin of only 260 votes, after leading with 37 percent of the vote in the June 14 primary election.

The Horry Republican Party Executive Committee voted July 7 to deny Lazarus' challenge of the June 28 runoff election results in the county chairman's race. The committee decided Lazarus did not file his protest in a timely manner and denied his challenge.

The deadline for filing was the Monday after the election, which was July 4, a holiday. Lazarus filed his appeal on July 5, the same day that Sweeney allegedly filed his appeal.

Per State Statute Section 7-17-520, a protest against the election results must be filed by the following Monday after the runoff election.

The committee ruled 40-5, with two abstentions, that Lazarus' protest should not be considered because it was not filed by the Monday after the date of the runoff election, as required by state statute.

Lazarus finally conceded to Gardner on July 12.

 Follow Nicole Ziege on Twitter @NicoleZiege.