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Up to 200 State & Local Candidates in Danger of Being Kicked Off SC Ballots

South Carolina has a mess on its hands and there is a distinct possibility that candidates statewide will be removed from ballots in the coming months.

It all started because of a form called the Statement of Economic Interests which was to be submitted to the S.C. Ethics Commission by March 30, 2012. According to multiple candidates, the filing deadline for this form was listed as April 15th on the Ethics Commission website so when the 30th passed, they were dumbfounded to discover that they might not be eligible to run.

Now lawsuits have been filed in response to a deadline extension that was granted by the South Carolina Ethics Commission to deal with the confusion of the allegedly misprinted deadline dates.

So far, two lawsuits have been filed – one against the S.C. Democratic Party and a second against the S.C. Republican Party – to keep the names of a handful of Republicans and Democrats running for Lexington County State House races off June’s primary ballot.

There are many in S.C. that are saying these maneuvers are about one thing: incumbent protection.

According to S.C. insiders I spoke with this week, the state runs on a “good old boys network” of sorts. This network has worked together to overturn the vetoes of both Governor Mark Sanford and Governor Nikki Haley. Essentially, all power in the state resides within the S.C. House & Senate. I’m told that this veto-proof group can’t afford to allow their overriding power to be in jeopardy, and that only three seats need to change hands for all the power in the state to be shifted away from this group of incumbents. This could explain why S.C. Democratic Chairman Dick Harpootlian has decided to join the private citizens that filed lawsuits, by filing one of his own against the Republican party.

How much incumbent protection? Well for starters, the deadline pretty much gave a pass to anyone currently holding office according to Beaufort County Republican Party Chairman Jerry Hallman:

Incumbents are required to file that statement four times a year during their terms, and the elections law for filing forms at the same time “does not apply to a public official who has a current disclosure statement on file,” according to the S.C. Ethics Commission website.

That means a ruling for the plaintiff’s would probably only affect those who do not currently hold office.

(emphasis mine)

Additionally, the entire purpose of the form is to disclose income, but only income that is derived from the government. At the state level, first time candidates more than likely do not derive income from the government and as such, this form would essentially be a non-issue for most of them.

And it’s not just Democrats that want to prevent incumbent losses to newcomers. Republicans have worked to prevent new blood from joining their ranks; even when the new blood is a Republican as well.

GOP state Sen. Phil Shoopman announced this week that he won’t seek reelection in the Upstate district. Because no Democrats filed for the race before the deadline passed, Republican challenger and political newcomer Amanda Somers found herself running unopposed — set to become the only woman in the state Senate.

That was until SCGOP Chair Chad Connelly decided to reopen filing for Shoopman’s seat, allowing state Rep. Tom Corbin to enter the race as well. Although state law does allow a party to reopen filing for a race if only one person is running, Somers said Connelly’s move was designed to block her from a seat in the Senate.

And Sommers is far from the only example. Another notable race that could be thrown on its head is the seat of State Senator Jake Knotts, the disgraced Republican who referred to Gov. Nikki Haley as a “rag head” in 2010. His seat appeared to be in trouble until this series of events put challenger Katrina Shealy on the ropes.

To top it all off, judges in S.C. are not elected by the citizenry, they are appointed by this same veto-proof group that controls politics in the state. This inclusion of judges in the power structure has caused further disruption in a process that many had hoped would be expedited in light of the looming June primaries.

Grand Strand Daily and SC Hotline have joined forces to confirm that Chief Justice Jean Toal and Associate Justice Donald Beatty have recused themselves from the candidate filing case for the upcoming June 12th Republican and Democratic primaries.

In all, as many as 200 statewide and local candidates could be removed from the ballot because of this filing mishap. Placing blame is easy: the candidates that filed their paperwork incorrectly. As one insider said to me, “if you want to disrupt the ‘good old boy network’ you have to play by their rules.” In fact, I can think of no better example of why it is important to hire a lawyer when attempting to navigate campaign finance laws.

But there’s also no doubt that if the court finds in favor of the plaintiffs, the incumbency in S.C. will stand to benefit the most and the idea that the court must find in favor for the plaintiff is not cut & dried. If following the letter of the law is called for in this situation, then the Ethics Commission was within its rights to extend the deadline 10 days, allowing candidates who filed within the extension period to be on their ballot.

Opening arguments in this case will be heard tomorrow morning at the S.C. Supreme Court.

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