COLUMBIA — The S.C. Senate unanimously approved a bill Wednesday meant to prevent chaos in future elections like that which resulted in nearly 200 candidates being tossed off June primary ballots.
The measure would remove the Democratic and Republican parties from the filing process and sync the deadlines for incumbents and challengers to turn in financial paperwork.
It does not apply retroactively, so it has no bearing on candidates taken off June 12 ballots. Those candidates, including more than a dozen from the Lowcountry, were removed following the state Supreme Court’s ruling earlier this month on improperly filed paperwork.
The bill requires both challengers and incumbents to file financial forms online and bring proof into their local election commission office by the March 30 filing deadline. Candidates would immediately be certified as on the ballot if everything is filed correctly.
Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin said the bill turns the process over to professionals who will be trained on any future law change, at a fixed location with regular hours, as opposed to party operatives who can change per election cycle.
“Party chairmen come and go,” said Martin, R-Pickens.
In South Carolina, candidates for legislative and local races currently file with their local party chairmen, while candidates for solicitor, statewide and congressional offices file with the state party.
The bill requires another vote in the Senate before heading to the House. Because it’s past the crossover deadline, the House must vote by two-thirds majority to even take up the issue.
House Judiciary Chairman Jim Harrison said that shouldn’t be a problem.
“I think there’s a strong will in the House to at least correct this problem going forward,” said Harrison, R-Columbia, who is retiring after 23 years.
Sen. Jake Knotts, R-West Columbia, proposed the idea last week as a fix to clear up future elections, as he blocked an attempt to retroactively change the deadline for the current election.
“It takes the chairmen out of the loop and does it in a way that should’ve been done years and years ago,” he said.
A lawsuit brought by two Lexington County voters about the eligibility of a few candidates put the candidacy of hundreds into question over the proper filing of the “statement of economic interest.”
The form, meant to show voters any potential conflict of interests, includes income from government entities, any property with taxpayer-paid improvements or which is leased or sold to government, and any lobbyists in the immediate family. For political newcomers, it’s a form left largely blank.
About 55 of those tossed were House and Senate candidates.
Since 1991, state law has required candidates to turn in the financial form when they file their candidacy. That law exempted incumbents at all government levels, who must annually file the forms by April 15. Martin said the law was written that way to avoid duplication in election years, to avoid incumbents filing twice within a couple of weeks.
But it contributed to confusion after a 2010 law required online filing. While the intent was to reduce paperwork, legislators didn’t match up separate sections of the law pertaining to annual filing and candidate filing.
The state’s high court ruled two weeks ago that state law still required those seeking office to file the paper form in person at the same time they filed their candidacy.
About one-third of those tossed off the ballot filed the form online by the regular noon March 30 deadline but did not submit the paperwork in person as well. Most of the other booted candidates filed online by the incumbents’ April 15 deadline.
State GOP Chairman Chad Connelly “supports the effort to streamline and simplify the candidate filing process,” said the party’s executive director, Matt Moore.
The state Democratic Party chairman was less complimentary: “The Senate closes the barn door after the horse runs amuck,” Dick Harpootlian said of the approved bill.
Senators’ attempt to fast-track a measure that could put candidates back on June 12 ballots died last week on the floor over a disagreement over the deadline. Democrats and Knotts wanted to keep it at March 30, but recertify anyone who filed either online or in person within the two-week filing period, saying that helped anyone who followed the rules and might negate the need for federal approval that would likely push back the primaries to August. Most Republicans wanted to recertify anyone who filed by April 15.
The House was on standby to take up the retroactive fix should it pass the Senate, but the effort died before senators could even take up the proposed amendment.
Earlier this week, a three-judge federal panel dismissed a lawsuit accusing South Carolina election officials of breaking federal law by sending partial ballots to overseas voters, ruling the candidate had no standing to sue since she was among those re-certified to be on the ballot.