Bluffton doesn't gain a lot from election commission

After the mess that was the 2008 Bluffton Town Council election, the town's desire to bring clarity to the election process is understandable.

But the town's move to re-establish its election commission doesn't address the core problem with the 2008 election -- incorrect voter records.

And a state Supreme Court ruling that arose from the contested results of that election laid out an unambiguous appeals process: Municipal election appeals go from the local election oversight board to Circuit Court, not the S.C. Election Commission.

The voter records issue was addressed by elections board executive director Scott Marshall, who took over the job in 2009 after long-time elections director Agnes Garvin stepped down. And Marshall says his office will check records again before this November's council election.

He said it would cost Bluffton about $7,500 to train and certify three town election commissioners.

Councilman Michael Raymond voted March 8 against the ordinance to re-establish the town election commission.

"This does not come without expense, but I'm not sure it comes with any advantage. It is one more layer of bureaucracy," he said.

Raymond's right, especially given the guidance from the state's high court and the experience, expertise and staff that comes with county oversight of the elections.

The county would still provide voting machines and poll workers for elections, but certification and protests would be handled by the town election commission.

The issue in the 2008 election was that some voters who lived in town did not get a Town Council ballot, and some voters who lived outside town did get council ballots. Two council seats and the mayor's seat were up for election.

Garvin said after the election that there were 166 "coding" irregularities. Four people ran for the two council seats and only 26 votes separated the second- and third-place finishers.

Third- and fourth-place finishers Jeff Fulgham and Normand Thomas appealed, and the county board called for a new election.

First- and second-place finishers Fred Hamilton Jr. and Allyne Mitchell appealed that decision to the state commission, which said there wasn't enough evidence to warrant a new election.

Fulgham and Thomas appealed to the S.C. Supreme Court. In the meantime, Hamilton and Mitchell were sworn into office.

The state's high court ruled in December 2009 that the appeal should have gone from the county board to Circuit Court and not to the state commission. That's the procedure state law lays out for municipal elections, and that's true even when a county board is in charge of municipal elections.

The ruling sent the appeal of the county board's decision to hold a new election to the Circuit Court, but it has languished there. No one has filed a motion asking a Circuit Court judge to hear the appeal.

And there's not much incentive for anyone to do so. Fulgham and Thomas, should they win a new election, would not have much time left to serve in office. Hamilton and Mitchell have no incentive to appeal since they're serving on council. The county elections board decided in July that it couldn't hold a new election with the appeal pending.

The seats are up for election in November. As Marshall says, time and events have overtaken the matter.

The lesson to draw from all this is the importance of running election right in the first place.