Lawmakers must fix flawed election system

When last we wrote about the June 12 primaries, we lamented the many uncontested races.

Little did we know it would get worse due to a perfect storm of incompetence.

About 180 would-be candidates across the state are off the ballot because they didn't file a statement of economic interests at the same time they filed to run for office and with the same person. A 1991 law requires that, the state Supreme Court says, and a subsequent law, passed in 2010, requiring people to file these statements online with the state Ethics Commission doesn't change that. The court made the right call.

Many candidates got bad instructions from the Ethics Commission and party officials. They also didn't make sure they understood the law. Incumbents are exempt from having to turn in an economic interests statement with their candidacy paperwork. Their statements of economic interests are already on file.

Lawmakers have a bad habit of passing laws and not taking into account their ramifications. This is a good example. Online filing is fine; it's especially helpful for campaign contribution disclosures. But the new law should have been reconciled with existing statutes.

The Ethics Commission folks could have helped out. They're supposed to know the law. At the very least, it should have been clear that everyone but incumbents had to file a paper version of the statement, as well as file it online. The two tasks aren't mutually exclusive.

The statements of economic interests aren't even all that enlightening. They aim to let voters know whether a candidate or officeholder has any income or business dealings involving public money. The most frequent entry on many of the statements is "N/A," not applicable.

It all probably would have gone unnoticed except for a looming primary fight between state Sen. Jake Knotts of Lexington County and challenger Katrina Shealy, who is now off the ballot. Two Lexington County voters filed the lawsuit that resulted in last week's Supreme Court decision.

The Senate spent this past week trying to come up with a fix, but the clock is ticking. Election law changes in South Carolina also must be approved by the U.S. Justice Department. An effort to make the filing deadline April 15, the deadline for incumbents to update their statements, failed.

But fix it lawmakers should, and if it means pushing back the date of the primary, that's what they should do. We have plenty of time to get this straightened out before the Nov. 6 general election. The deadline for petition candidates isn't until July 16.

The Supreme Court told county party officials to determine who had met the requirements. Unfortunately, that's another mess because how that was determined varied from county to county.

Some insisted that the pieces of paper had to be turned in at the same time (the strict interpretation of the law and the court's ruling); others decided that if the paperwork was in by the March 30 filing deadline, the candidates were good to go.

Here in Beaufort County, we had four contested primary races. Republican County Council District 7 candidate Dan Duryea is the only one who was bumped from the ballot. He didn't file his statement of economic interests until April 26 and did so online. His primary opponent, Cynthia Bensch, had previously served on the state Election Commission and so had filed a statement before.

Clerk of Court challenger Ray Garza correctly turned in his paperwork for the Republican primary, county GOP chairman Jerry Hallman said. In the House District 120 Republican primary race, Laura Sterling filed her statement of economic interest by March 30, the primary filing deadline, so she's on the ballot. Her opponents are incumbent County Council members Weston Newton and Jerry Stewart.

Duryea says he plans to seek signatures from registered voters in the new County Council district and try to get on the ballot as a petition candidate.

If the legislature or courts don't come up with a timely solution, the June 12 primary could go ahead -- with fewer names on the ballots. Those who didn't get on the ballot can do as Duryea says he'll do -- seek to get on the general election ballot through petition. There's no reason we can't have competitive races come November.