An email sent by Beaufort County's Board of Elections chairman in October urging fellow Republican Party members to get involved in the party's push toward the 2016 election did not constitute an ethics violation, according to a state elections commission official, but that didn't stop Democratic Party members from demanding the chairman issue an apology and recuse himself from further party matters.
Board of Elections and Voter Registration chairman Ron Clifford sent the email Oct. 6 urging his fellow Republicans to help increase voter turnout locally or even travel to other battleground states to help Republican candidates.
S.C. State Election Commission public information officer Chris Whitmire said Clifford's email did not violate state law because it did not directly involve a political campaign. Election board members are prohibited from taking part in the management of a political campaign, along with making contributions to a candidate, knowingly attending a campaign event or holding a political office.
Board members who violate the law can be removed by the governor or an "appropriate authority," Whitmire said.
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"There's nothing to say they can't participate in political party activity," he said. "I'm not sure it violates anything, but it pushes up against it. When you come on the board, we ask you to set those political connections aside."
Whitmire said the Election Commission asks local officials to consider "what impact (partisan) activity might have on the public's interpretation of an election. They need to try not to engage in that type of behavior and say to themselves 'I will put my political leanings secondary to my duty on the elections board.'"
Reached Tuesday, Clifford said he did not recall sending the email. After The Island Packet provided him with a copy, he said he did not have time to review it, but would likely read it and issue a comment Wednesday.
Although the email Clifford sent was technically not an ethical or legal violation, Beaufort County Democratic Party chairman Blaine Lotz said the email "was clearly crossing the line," demanding a public apology from Clifford and a promise to refrain from political party activity in the future.
"I don't accept that from them that this is not a problem," he said. "He's telling people how to get more Republicans in office. It's worse than managing a political campaign. It's how to build up the Republican Party and it's unacceptable."
In his email, Clifford urged local Republicans to become committeemen or presidents at local precincts, as only eight of 27 local precincts had one. Clifford also cited data that showed only 41 percent of registered Republicans on Hilton Head Island voted in the 2012 presidential election and said in the email he would contact known Republicans in his neighborhood, helping them either cast an absentee ballot or get to the polls on Election Day.
In the closing paragraph of the email, Clifford said the party needed "to go beyond our S.C. borders to help others," including using the Hilton Head Island Republican Club to make phone calls to help Republican candidates in other states.
Whitmire said the election commission urges election board members to remove themselves from political party activity while they serve in the position, to ensure the public has confidence in the outcome of elections. However, since the process is almost entirely political -- the local legislative delegation nominates board members, typically people they know from political activity, and the governor confirms them -- it can be difficult for the board member to completely remove themselves from any political activity, Whitmire said.
"It's unrealistic to expect them to never be involved in the party," he said. "They can attend the meetings, but they should not be beating the bushes and getting involved. Once their time is done on the board, they can get involved again."
Lotz said if a Democratic board member was caught sending partisan emails, there would have been a public backlash and a request for their removal from the board. He added it was unrealistic to expect or even ask for Clifford's removal from the board, since it would require Republican Gov. Nikki Haley to make that change.
"He is in one of those positions where this is not the thing you should be involved in," he said. "Had a Democrat on the board done this, they would be making a ruckus. I don't want any ruckus, I just don't want him to send these emails."
Follow reporter Matt McNab at twitter.com/IPBG_Matt.