COLUMBIA — Republicans and Democrats don’t agree on much in South Carolina, but the leaders of both parties said this year’s elections were a mess.
More than 200 candidates were kicked off the June primary ballot because of paperwork problems. Voters waited four hours or more to vote Tuesday in one of the state’s largest counties, and there was an unprecedented seizure of votes. The way people are elected was in the news more than the politicians themselves.
“Both parties have spent more money, more time and more effort in court than we have on the political side. It’s been exasperating,” said South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian.
State Republican Party Chairman Chad Connelly called this year’s election season in South Carolina “the most bizarre and confusing processes we have ever seen.”
And it isn’t over yet. Richland County’s votes were being recounted Friday at the State Election Commission on a judge’s order when the state Supreme Court halted the process. The county’s election results will be in limbo at least until Tuesday, when that judge holds a hearing on a lawsuit filed by Democrats asking the votes not be certified because of irregularities.
Among the irregularities was a dump of 267 absentee votes, each one for Republican state House candidate Kirkland Finlay. Finlay ended up with a 265-vote lead over his Democratic opponent.
Richland County voters also faced waits of four hours or more, even though the county’s 61.6 percent turnout was the second-lowest of any county in the state. Election officials sent out less than 800 voting machines to precincts, leaving more than 100 machines behind on Tuesday.
Greenville County, which has only about 40,000 more registered voters, sent out more than 1,000 machines and kept behind only about two-dozen for testing or absentee votes, said county Director for Elections Conway Belangia.
Richland County officials have not explained why so many machines went unused on Election Day.
The problems with South Carolina’s elections began in a courtroom. A series of state Supreme Court rulings on how strictly to interpret a recent law about filing paperwork on candidates’ income kicked more than 250 challengers off the primary ballot. Some legislative races were left with no candidates until so-called petition candidates got enough signatures to get on the ballot without party affiliation.
They didn’t fare very well. Only one petition state House or Senate candidate beat a major party candidate in 22 competitive races. But the lone win was a big one– Katrina Shealy beat longtime Sen. Jake Knotts, R-West Columbia. It was a lawsuit filed against Shealy that led to the ballot chaos.
“There are a whole bunch of folks to blame,” Harpootlian said. “It comes back to the Legislature, which passed legislation without knowing what it was going to do and a governor’s office that didn’t read what it was signing.”
Connelly said Republicans plan to form a task force soon that will give advice to lawmakers on how to change filing requirements so the problems don’t happen again.
The lines in Richland County also have brought up renewed interest in early voting. Nearly 14 percent of all registered voters in South Carolina cast absentee ballots even though the state doesn’t have the expansive early voting system in place elsewhere. In neighboring North Carolina, 60 percent of all votes were cast during early voting, which lasts for more than two weeks and includes weekends. Officials said early voting there kept lines on Election Day short.
Having one 12-hour period to vote is a throwback to agrarian days when the harvest was finished by November and farmers could head to their polling places for hours of chatting, South Carolina Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire said.
“We still conduct elections in South Carolina the way we did in horse-and-buggy days,” Whitmire said.
But Connelly isn’t sure early voting will get much traction because Election Day went smoothly just about everywhere outside of Richland County.
“Somebody was either completely incompetent or grossly negligent,” Connelly said of Richland County. “I’m not sure there is as much support statewide.”