Hilton Head mayoral candidates worry about voting issues, won’t debate before runoff

In runoff, Hilton Head mayoral candidates will need votes in these precincts to win

Unofficial results show how the votes went for the Hilton Head Island mayoral race
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Unofficial results show how the votes went for the Hilton Head Island mayoral race

With just over one week until election day for Hilton Head’s new mayor, several factors are affecting the candidates’ opportunities to debate, reach absentee voters and predict which way the election will ultimately fall.

Candidates Kim Likins and John McCann, both sitting Hilton Head Town Council members, will compete in a runoff election on Nov. 20 because neither of them took more than 50 percent of the vote in the general election.

The two were part of a six-candidate race for the mayor’s seat this year. All the candidates were fresh faces since incumbent David Bennett did not seek re-election.

On Nov. 6, McCann received the most votes in the general election with 5,797 ballots. Likins got 4,790.

Here’s what’s going on in the runoff election season:

No chance to debate?

In an email blast to his supporters on Nov. 10, McCann said that an upcoming debate between the two candidates was canceled because Likins “withdrew” from the event.

He said the debate was scheduled for Nov. 13, but the debate was never publicly announced by the host, the Hilton Head Island- Bluffton Chamber of Commerce. McCann said the chamber used the word “withdraw” when notifying him of the cancellation, but an email between the chamber and McCann said Likins “declined” the “invitation.”

Likins told the Island Packet she did not “withdraw,” but told the moderator shortly after the midterm election she couldn’t make the event because of a scheduling conflict.

She said she has a “personal event” on Nov. 13, and that her decision not to attend the forum was “a choice on how to best spend and balance” her time in the two weeks leading up to the runoff.

Likins addressed rumors of withdrawing from the debate on Monday, saying, “I’m not doing it because I’m afraid to be in a debate with John.”

The chamber hosted a candidate forum in October, where six mayoral candidates faced off in rounds of random questions about policy.

Another event hosted by Port Royal Plantation featuring both candidates was confirmed for Nov. 17, but was canceled when McCann said he could not attend. He said the Port Royal event was not a debate, and that his schedule for Saturday before the election was full.

As of Monday afternoon, there is not a debate between McCann and Likins scheduled before the runoff election on Nov. 20.

Absentee voting difficulties

Absentee voting for the runoff was supposed to begin after the official canvass of votes on Saturday, Nov. 10, according to the director of the Board of Voter Registration and Elections of Beaufort County, Marie Smalls.

However, several Hilton Head voters reported receiving an error message that reads “there are zero elections available which you are eligible for an absentee application” when they tried to use the election office’s online link to request an application over the week after the general election.

Smalls said the link was not turned on by South Carolina Election Commission, which handles absentee voting.

The link was finally up and running on Tuesday at 10 a.m., but the delay cost voters three days in an already tight window to start absentee voting in the runoff election.

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Town code states that a runoff must fall two weeks after the general election, and this year that date falls two days before Thanksgiving.

Both candidates said they expect many Hilton Head residents will be away from the island visiting friends and family for the holiday, and both Likins and McCann have expressed concern over the absentee ballot link problems.

Here are the deadlines for voting in the runoff election:

  • Nov. 16: Last day to return an application for an absentee ballot.
  • Nov. 19 at 5 p.m.: Deadline to vote absentee in person at the Bluffton or Beaufort elections offices.
  • Nov. 20 at 7 p.m.: Deadline to return mail-in absentee ballot for the runoff.

Runoff elections in the past

Hilton Head has seen a fair share of runoff elections — the last three mayoral elections have ended in a runoff between the top candidates.

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Drew Laughlin won the 2010 election via runoff, when he beat Tom Crews by just two percent.

In 2014, incumbent mayor Laughlin beat challenger David Bennett and three other candidates in the general election. However, when the race went to a runoff, Bennett beat Laughlin by 30 percentage points in what the Island Packet called a “stunning upset.”

At the time, Bennett told the Island Packet “I think the people were ready for a change...they demanded it. Now it’s time to get started.”

In the 2014 election, 36 percent of registered voters on Hilton Head cast ballots in the general election. That number fell to 30 percent in the runoff, according to previous Island Packet reporting.

This year on Hilton Head voter turnout ranged from 33.77 to 59.74 percent, depending on precinct.

As this runoff election nears, Likins and McCann said they will try to differentiate their platforms. The two have sat on opposing sides of a council divided at times over issues such as transparency from the chamber, the town’s visioning process and the role of the town in developing workforce housing.

On Nov. 11, McCann announced via email that former mayoral candidate Alan Perry endorsed him in the runoff election.