A three-judge federal panel has ruled in favor of District 41 Republican candidate Paul Thurmond, bringing to a close the final legal drama behind South Carolina’s election-year debacle.
Thurmond, a former Charleston County councilman and son of longtime U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, now may focus on his Nov. 6 election race against Democrat and former Charleston City Councilman Paul Tinkler.
Thursday’s ruling, signed by U.S. Circuit Judge Henry Floyd and U.S. District Judges Richard Gergel and David Norton, refused to block Thurmond as a candidate and dismissed the case against him.
The lawsuit, brought by District 41 voter Reginald Williams, claimed that an early S.C. Supreme Court ruling caused a change that South Carolina did not get approved properly under Section V of the Voting Rights Act. The section was written to protect minority voting rights. Williams is a black debt collector who lives in West Ashley.
Thurmond said he wasn’t surprised at the ruling because he felt it was a frivolous lawsuit brought for political purposes.
“Their quick response indicates their total lack of need to deliberate,” he added. “This issue wasn’t close.”
Other Republicans have described the federal suit, litigated by S.C. Democratic Chairman Dick Harpootlian, as a ploy to kick Thurmond off the ballot and pave the way for Tinkler to win the seat formerly held by Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell.
Democrats, including Harpootlian, have argued that Thurmond got special treatment because he was the only one of more than 200 candidates kicked off this year’s ballot to get back on.
Harpootlian said in court earlier this week he wasn’t getting a dime from the lawsuit, and Tinkler said Thursday he had nothing to do with the recent lawsuit and agreed with the judges’ ruling.
A former Tinkler consultant did help arrange a plaintiff, lawyer and attorneys fees for the original Court of Common Pleas lawsuit challenging Thurmond’s candidacy. Tinkler provided The Post and Courier with an email showing he strongly discouraged that idea, but it went ahead.
“I expected to have an opponent and I look forward to a vigorous discussion of the issues,” Tinkler said Thursday. “I don’t think these lawsuits helped my campaign whatsoever. In fact, Mr. Thurmond is trying to use the fact these lawsuits were brought as a campaign issue against me.”
Earlier this year, as more than 200 candidates across South Carolina were struck from the ballot because they didn’t file both paper and electronic copies of an ethics form when they filed, Thurmond claimed his position as a part-time prosecutor meant that he was a public official exempt from that requirement.
The S.C. Supreme Court ultimately disagreed with Thurmond — but only after he had cleared the June 12 primary and was certified as his party’s nominee. The Supreme Court allowed a special GOP primary to occur to fill the void left by kicking Thurmond off the ballot, and Thurmond ultimately won that Oct. 2.
Thurmond said even if the lawsuits didn’t knock him off the ballot, Tinkler knew they would make it harder for Thurmond to raise money and campaign in what could be a close race.
During a special election in District 41 this summer, Republican Walter Hundley prevailed over Tinkler by only 14 votes out of 6,100 cast.
“Most importantly, Paul Tinkler knew that he could not win this race if it was decided on the issues so he tried to steal it,” Thurmond said.
Tinkler was not in court when the case was heard earlier this week and said Thursday, “I don’t have anything to do with these darned lawsuits.”
Scott Huffmon, a Winthrop University political science professor, said it’s difficult to argue somebody acted wrongly in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling that knocked off hundreds of candidates and spurred dozens of related lawsuits.
During Thurmond’s trial this week, State Election Commission Director Marci Andino was asked how challenging this election year was on a scale of 1 to 10. “Twelve,” she replied.
“This situation has never occurred before. There is no norm to compare it to,” Huffmon said. “Everyone on both sides has been trying to find a solution that is going to work out best for themselves. That’s what politicians do.”