The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that Charleston County Republicans can move forward with their primary for a state Senate seat. But the case could have consequences across the state— the latest chapter in the unprecedented ballot controversy in South Carolina.
Thursday’s case goes back to the now-infamous Supreme Court decision in May that removed over 250 candidates from ballots around the state on a paperwork technicality. The court previously ruled that a 2010 state law requires any candidate who did not already hold public office to simultaneously submit both an electronic and physical copy of their statement of economic interest (SEI), which discloses any financial ties to state or local government. The court ordered the state’s political parties to remove any candidates who had not submitted both.
This particular case involves a Republican runoff for a state Senate seat in Charleston County. Former North Charleston municipal prosecutor Paul Thurmond had believed he was the winner as the last Republican candidate remaining while his opponents were removed from the ballot. While Thurmond had also failed to submit a physical copy of his SEI (he did submit an electronic version), he argued his job made him a “public official” and exempt from the requirement. But a circuit judge disagreed and ordered the Charleston County GOP to remove Thurmond.
Then the judge ordered a new special primary— which was the first such “do-over” for any of the statewide races affected by the May decision. Both the Charleston County Democratic Party and the South Carolina Election Commission appealed the decision, arguing such a primary would be unprecedented. Thurmond is currently facing Walter Hundley in the primary. The winner faces Democrat Paul Tinkler.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court upheld the lower judge’s ruling in a narrow 3-2 decision, ruling that state law allows for a new primary if a party’s candidate is “disqualified” after his nomination. “It is… clear that the General Assembly would not have intended for ‘disqualified’ to be interpreted so narrowly that a political party is prevented from conducting any special primary to replace its nominee due to the improper certification,” Chief Justice Jean Toal wrote in the majority opinion.
However, two justices dissented, saying that the law does not allow for a new election if the Charleston County GOP improperly certified an ineligible candidate in the first place. “(H)e was ineligible to appear on the ballot and was improperly certified as the Republican nominee for Senate District 41. He, therefore, is not the party nominee,” Justice Costa Pleicones wrote.
The court’s ruling could make things crazy with only eight weeks remaining before Election Day. Some legal observers say the court has now given the other disqualified candidates room to demand their own new primaries. But others say Thurmond’s unique situation (already winning the nomination before he was removed) do not apply to other races.