COLUMBIA - The state Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the law that governs how South Carolina's elections are conducted, dismissing the Libertarian Party's arguments against it - and potentially averting an Election Day disaster.
Party attorneys argued against a law passed last year in hopes of preventing a repeat of the 2012 legal mess that kicked hundreds of candidates off primary ballots because of disputes over how their paperwork should have been filed.
The legislation, signed by Gov. Nikki Haley in June, synchronized the candidate filing process for incumbents with those seeking to be officeholders and centralized election filing under the State Election Commission.
The law also outlines procedures for parties that want to change how they nominate candidates. The Libertarian Party has traditionally nominated by convention, a process attorney Lauren Martel said the party wants to keep. But, the party contended, the new law requires that a primary be held before continuing the convention process.
The party wanted the court to order state officials to conduct the primary this year. The court ruled a Libertarian primary would not be necessary.
Martel said in court earlier Thursday that the new law isn't valid because it requires U.S. Justice Department approval. It was passed weeks before the U.S. Supreme Court struck parts of that review process. Without that law in place, Martel said, the Libertarian Party vote wouldn't be needed, and the party could simply go on holding its conventions.
In court Thursday, Chief Justice Jean Toal said granting the party's request to overturn the new law, known as the Equal Access to the Ballot Act, would invalidate the more than 700 candidates who have filed for this year's elections under new requirements.
"We're now going to re-erupt that entire controversy," Toal said. "Knocking everybody off the ballot because of the technical argument that you're making would sure not provide much equal access to the ballot, would it?"
Arguing on behalf of the State Election Commission, Assistant Attorney General Johanna Valenzuela said special elections have already been held under the new law.
Several justices questioned Valenzuela over Election Commission executive director Marci Andino's decision to tell the party earlier this year that a Libertarian primary not required under the new law, and that one couldn't be held in 2014 because of time and financial constraints.
Before giving the party that answer, the Commission requested an opinion from the attorney general over whether parties that nominate by convention had to make changes under the new law. In the advisory opinion, prosecutors said parties that traditionally nominate by convention don't have to do anything different to preserve that process.
In its ruling, the high court said the law went into effect June 25, 2013, the day that the U.S. Supreme Court issued its own ruling, and agreed with the commission that a primary wouldn't be necessary.
"Because petitioner has always utilized the convention method of nominating candidates, the Act does not require petitioner to adopt a primary nomination process in order to retain its convention method of nomination," the court wrote.
According to commission records, only one race - House District 119 - has multiple Libertarian candidates. Several justices suggested in court that the Libertarian Party could simply hold a convention to select a nominee in that contest in lieu of holding a primary.
The court had been expected to rule quickly. Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire said Saturday is the deadline to send primary ballots to military and overseas voters, although he pointed out that none had been requested by voters indicating they wanted to vote in a Libertarian Party primary.
Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP