COLUMBIA — A collection of candidates and conservative activist groups kicked off a statewide campaign Monday aimed at helping both Democratic and Republican candidates stripped from primary ballots gather enough signatures to run as petition candidates in the fall.

The state Supreme Court recently ruled that more than 180 challengers who did not properly file income disclosure statements were not eligible for the June 12 primaries.

In order to qualify as a petition candidate, hopefuls must gather the signatures of at least 5 percent of registered voters represented by the office the candidate is seeking.

Among Lowcountry residents who on Monday announced they have launched drives to become petition candidates were John Steinberger, who wants to challenge House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, for the House District 114 seat; Peter VonLehe Ruegner, who seeks the House District 110 seat held by Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston; and Barbara McGowin, a Democrat who hopes to take the Senate District 44 seat held by Paul G. Campbell Jr., R-Goose Creek.

Steinberger had been on the ballot in the special election to fill the Senate District 41 seat. The seat recently was vacated by Republican Glenn McConnell, who became lieutenant governor.

But Steinberger said he’s satisfied now that Senate 41 is adequately contested, whereas Harrell is not.

Steinberger said it will take about 1,100 signatures to get his name on the ballot.

McGowin was not among the group of mostly tea party Republicans who held a news conference in North Charleston to announce the candidacies of Ruegner and Steinberger, but when she spoke from the audience, she was welcomed and applauded.

Talbert Black, state coordinator for Campaign for Liberty, said the petition candidacy effort is aimed at getting both Democrats and Republicans who were forced off the ballot back into the running.

Ruegner, a 22-year-old recent College of Charleston graduate, was not among candidates the court ruled off the ballot.

Standing on the steps of the Supreme Court early Monday afternoon, Black acknowledged the 5 percent requirement represents a major hurdle.

“A lot of it’s going to be up candidates themselves; they have to decide whether they want to run as petition candidates,” he said. “Some of them have told me they don’t want to do that.”

Black said the network of groups participating in “Operation Lost Vote” plan to gather signatures at large events, such as local festivals.

Black was joined by a group of 20 activists and candidates who gathered at the court to slam the ballot issue as a symptom of a larger problem with corruption in state government.

“I think what we’re witnessing is the result of absolute power being held by the General Assembly,” he said. “Our candidates have been thrown off the ballot because they are subject to a different set of rules than the incumbents.”

The Operation Lost Vote moniker is a verbal play off the massive 1990 “Operation Lost Trust” scandal that involved lawmakers selling their votes.

The vote-buying scandal led to a sweeping overhaul of state ethics laws that included different rules for challengers and incumbents. Black and others blame it for the ballot fiasco.

The changes required challengers to file a statement of economic interests at the same time they filed for office. Incumbents were not held to the same requirement because they had statements of economic interests on file.

Black said that in addition to helping candidates gather signatures, another goal of Operation Lost Vote is to change the law to treat challengers and incumbents the same.

Deedee Vaughters, a Republican challenger for the state Senate District 26 seat held by West Columbia Democratic Sen. Nikki Setzler, said she escaped the ballot purge only because of her time as a state lottery commissioner.

Vaughters said she had a statement of economic interests already on file with the State Ethics Commission when she filed for the Senate seat.

She said the different treatment is wrong, and she’ll work to help ousted candidates.

“I feel that not only have these candidates been disenfranchised, so have you, the voter,” Vaughters said.

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