South Carolina elections officials have ordered a delay in voting for the state House seat formerly held by Bobby Harrell.
In a controversial decision, the State Election Commission voted unanimously Thursday to give Republicans enough time to pick a replacement candidate. The commission rejected an affidavit filed by Harrell seeking to withdraw from the ballot, saying a guilty plea deal with prosecutors had already disqualified him.
Harrell’s ineligibility had meant the reliably-Republican district in Charleston and Dorchester counties suddenly had only Democratic nominee Mary Tinkler and Green Party candidate Sue Edward on the ballot. While Harrell’s name would appear, votes for him could not be counted.
But the South Carolina Democratic Party and an attorney representing Tinkler at Thursday’s hearing maintained it was “unprecedented” to order a new election after absentee voting had already begun. State party chairman Jaime Harrison said the move by a Republican-appointed board (although one commissioner is required to be Democratic) at the advice of staffers from a Republican state attorney general “reeked of politics.”
“We will be taking this to the highest court here in South Carolina,” he told reporters immediately after the commission’s decision. “Because we need to stand up for the voters in this state and the voters in that district.”
Filing for GOP candidates will reopen on November 4 (Election Day). After a two-week filing period, the candidates would have only a short window before a Nov. 25 primary. But state law requires any special elections to be held on Dec. 9. That presents an issue because state law also requires a runoff on the same date if no Republican gets a majority of the vote during the Nov. 25 primary. Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire said officials would try to clarify the new election schedule in a written order released within 24 hours of the vote.
In making its decision, the commission had to navigate ambiguous state law which did not appear to address this specific scenario. Under South Carolina election laws, a party can replace a candidate who is disqualified or resigns for a “legitimate nonpolitical reason.” But the law isn’t clear what happens if that disqualification occurs within two weeks of Election Day. The law does allow for a new special election if the affected party “certifies” a new candidate before Election Day, but that does not apply to this race since the GOP would not have had enough time to hold a primary before Tuesday.
SCGOP Chairman Matt Moore said he believes the decision was the right one. “The bigger picture is that voters get a choice,” he said. “That’s the real issue of fairness. Fairness means that, in a free country, voters get choices on the ballot.”
But Harrison insisted Republicans chose Harrell to be their nominee despite an ongoing state investigation into his campaign earlier this year. “To get the do-over just doesn’t seem fair,” he said. “We will be fighting this with every ounce of energy that we have to make sure that the right thing happened.”
However, the GOP’s attorney Butch Bowers argued voters also heard Harrell professing his innocence at the time. He noted that party leaders could do nothing to remove Harrell from the ballot once the voters had chosen.
But Harrison said the commission’s decision “opened up a whole Pandora’s box” because it creates precedent that allows candidates who are trailing in races to withdraw, citing family or business reasons, and political parties could delay the election to find a better candidate.