In what has proved to be one of the most muddled and complicated election cycles in memory, the Aiken Standard has made a concerted effort to present a clear picture of the political landscape. The Aiken Standard always sees informing the electorate as a key part of our journalistic mission, but it has been even more critical this year as judges, not voters, made many of the decisions for us by disqualifying candidates on an unprecedented scale. That dismissal of nearly 200 primary candidates statewide, based on violations of financial reporting regulations, has led to ballots around the Palmetto State and in Aiken County filled with petition and spaces for write-in candidates.

Over the last four weeks, the Aiken Standard editorial board has met with the area candidates for office and asked tough questions in an effort to evaluate them. Many voters attended or watched the Oct. 15 Aiken Standard and ASTV candidate forum that featured most of those offering themselves for election. From those interviews and appearances, the editorial board has chosen a list of candidates it feels will best represent the interests of Aiken County and its residents.

South Carolina House of Representatives District 81

Republican Don Wells is facing Republican Jane Vaughters, who is running as a petition candidate.

While both of these caring area residents have served the public as members of Aiken City Council and made great contributions to the community across the board, we recommend the election of Vaughters.

She is fiercely independent and approaches issues with an analytical mind and a heathy suspicion of the powers that be.

Vaughters is fiscally conservative to be sure and has been critical of public spending on what she considers less than essential programs.

While she calls for extensive study and careful and transparent consideration of incentives used to lure industry and jobs to South Carolina, she does not rule out such deals when needed to remain competitive with other regions.

In an age when the legislature needs change and reform, the voter can be sure Vaughters will buck the system and follow her conscience, not the party leadership’s mandates.

Wells has been endorsed by the S.C. Chamber of Commerce, the S.C. Home Builders Association, the S.C. Board of Realtors and the S.C. Trucking Association for his pro-business stands. He is a likable and credible candidate who would work to fit within the system in Columbia and forward his agenda through building allegiances over time.

This was a tough call in a race with two good candidates, but the House is in need of reform and someone looking to send that message clearly and quickly.

As a recognized firebrand and a strict proponent of term limits, Vaughters offers a chance to send a real message of change to the legislature on day one and work to get her agenda on the table in short order.

South Carolina House of Representatives District 86

Incumbent Republican Bill Taylor, completing his first term, faces write-in challenger Republican David Lobb, a late entry to the race who announced he would mount a write-in effort earlier this month. Taylor has capably served the district in his inaugural term.

He sponsored a bill seeking to strengthen South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act by more clearly defining what should be open for public inspection and requiring that only reasonable fees be charged for research and copies requested by the public.

While the bill stalled at the end of the session and failed to pass the Senate, Taylor needs to get back to the House and finish this important effort. We believe he will be successful with the bill and applaud him for it.

South Carolina Senate District 26

Lexington County’s Nikki Setzler, an incumbent Democrat with 36 years under his belt, is facing Aiken newcomer and Republican Deedee Vaughters in a contentious race that has centered on Setzler’s anemic record as a Senator representing a small portion of Aiken County. To be clear, Setzler has rarely crossed the Aiken County line in his years of representing the district and fails to attend County delegation meetings with alarming frequency.

He is also an insider who admittedly participates in the questionable practice of inflating his Senate income by charging a daily expense rate for travel and lodging even though he lives within a stone’s throw of the Statehouse.

Deedee Vaughters, the daughter-in-law of House 81 candidate Jane Vaughters, is a bright and vocal politically conservative activist and small business owner who would challenge the status quo at every turn and call for real reforms.

Were it not for her overly parochial positions on small business and insistence that large industrial prospects receive no incentives to locate in the state unless they are also offered to all other businesses, she would be a very clear choice.

Free market capitalism is a noble goal, but the states competing for the next Bridgestone, BMW, Boeing or Amazon and the jobs that come with them will not simply stay out of the way and allow market forces to rule as Vaughters suggests.

Probate Judge.

Republican Jane Page Thompson is challenging longtime incumbent Democrat Sue Roe.

Thompson is an outspoken political activist who has long been vocal on a host of conservative causes dear to her heart. She offers a raft of proposals to upgrade the services of the Probate Court.

We’re just not convinced those changes are necessary or prudent. At its core, the Probate Court has jurisdiction over marriage licenses, estates of the deceased, guardianships of incompetents, conservatorships of minors and incompetents, minor settlements under $25,000 and involuntary commitments to institutions for mentally ill or chemically dependent persons.

Thompson argues that these services can be offered as a break-even or profitable endeavor for the County and that they are in other jurisdictions around the state.

Perhaps they can be, but the first and foremost mission of a Probate Judge is the compassionate and caring disposition of these sensitive family issues.

Sue Roe has proved quite capable at providing those services over the years, and we see no compelling need for a complete overhaul at this time.

Aiken County Sheriff

With nine years under his belt, Republican incumbent Michael Hunt has served his constituents well and increased the professionalism and service of the office he leads.

He has earned another four years.

Challenger Jim Vause, a write-in candidate, claims crime is at record levels under Hunt’s leadership and the corps of officers is poorly organized and prepared.

While no administration is perfect over the span of a decade, we don’t see the evidence to support Vause’s sweeping claims.

Aiken County Treasurer, Auditor and the Form of Government

At last count some 11 candidates, all of them write-ins, are in the mix.

Brevity precludes naming them all, much less exploring their various backgrounds and wildly different qualifications to fill the post as the County’s primary tax collector and banker.

In the race for treasurer and auditor, we are pleased that a number of caring people want to serve, but the lack of qualifications of many strongly makes the case that one doesn’t not need to have either financial or management experience to serve in these offices.

We recommend leaving empty treasurer slot on the ballot blank and instead support passage of the referendum to change the County’s form of government to Council-Manager, which can and should render the results of this race moot.

If successful, the change in form of government would bring the hiring of the Treasurer and Auditor posts under the auspices of the County Manager.

The bar is set very low in the S.C. Constitution regarding the qualifications for these offices and their work is too critical to be left to results of a popularity contest.

While opponents of the referendum argue that checks and balances will be lost, it is important to remember that the members of County Council who will hire and supervise the Manager, Treasurer and Auditor will still face voter approval every four years.

School Board District 8

Tad Barber, Wes Funderberg and Bruce Wheelon are competing for this seat in a non-partisan election.

All of them are well respected members of the community with a strong desire to serve and each would likely do a capable job.

The deciding factor has less to do with the individuals running in this particular race and more with the composition of the nine-member board as a whole.

The Board is currently made up of retired school district employees and public sector employees with the exception of District 9 member Richard Hazen who is a banker. In this race, Wes Funderberg is an Information Technology employee of the City of Aiken and Bruce Wheelon is a retired educator with a strong record of classroom and administrative experience.

Tad Barber, a banker and former real estate agent and developer, would bring some degree of diversity to the body’s membership. Barber’s background might not suggest it, but he is a strong backer of vastly improving school facilities and doing so as quickly and economically as possible. He did not support the school bond referendum of two years ago because he says he saw it as too costly, poorly planned and presented. He’s committed to finding reasonable ways to build new and better schools to improve education and draw new families and investment to Aiken County. He believes it can be done in a manner that doesn’t unduly burden taxpayers. That’s a bet worth making.

Uncontested legislative candidates

A number of candidates will face no opposition the November 6 ballot, but there are notables in the race who deserve support and recognition. Democrat William Clyburn has served S.C. House District 82 well and is a strong proponent of education sorely needed in the Statehouse.

Longtime Republican legislator Roland Smith will be re-elected in District 84, likewise Republican Bill Hixon in District 83.

On the Senate side, S.C. Rep. Tom Young, a Republican, is running unopposed to replace the retiring Sen. Greg Ryberg in Senate District 24. Young’s constituent service and efforts to keep voters informed about the work of the legislature have been superior.

Republican S.C. Senator Shane Massey stands alone in the race to reclaim his District 25 seat and we expect he will continue his good work there.

Despite our endorsement of these sitting legislators, we do need to take them to task for allowing this year’s election debacle to take place.

It is pretty clear that the unseating of so many candidates statewide was collateral damage from a single legislative race where the incumbent hoped to use a technicality to block a serious challenger from the ballot.

After the courts got involved, the legislature could have enacted a remedy or even a “do over,” but they failed to take any action whatsoever.

The General Assembly should be embarrassed by the colossal misstep and should take action to ensure that nothing like it ever takes place in the future. On the topic of education, many of our Republican legislators are quick to point out South Carolina’s high cost for funding Medicaid for the poor among other entitlements intended to a social and economic safety net.

They do so while questioning investment in schools and education, both K-12 and higher education. Were they wise, they would realize that building prisons and paying huge Medicaid bills is the back side cost of a poor education system. Prudent investment made in good schools and good teachers now can and will reduce the ranks of the poor and the needy in the future.