Many lessons to learn from primary debacle

South Carolina's legal saga over this year's primaries continues, and it only reinforces the need for change and clarity in our election laws.

The state Supreme Court ruled Sept. 20 that candidate Paul Thurmond should not have been on the June 12 Republican primary ballot for the District 41 Senate seat, nor certified as the party's candidate for the Nov. 6 election. But because he was disqualified after the June 12 primary, the Republican Party could hold a special primary for the Nov. 6 election. The ruling came two days after that special primary was held.

The court has been asked to reconsider its decision, and a federal lawsuit has been filed over the matter. Still, it's likely Thurmond will be on the ballot come November. The state's high court isn't likely to change its mind, and the challenge in the federal court is a stretch. It contends federal law requires that changes in state voting procedures receive federal approval before state election officials can enact them. But the state Supreme Court decision interprets existing law.

Today, a runoff is being held between Thurmond and Walter Hundley, the top two vote-getters in the Sept. 18 special primary, but Hundley has thrown his support to Thurmond.

Here's what we've learned from the Supreme Court since this issue popped up this spring:

  • Candidates filing to run for office must file a paper copy of their statement of economic interests when they file their intention to run and with the same person.
  • Candidates who have already filed statement of economic interests because they held public office do not have to file that paper copy.
  • Those who held public office but had not filed a statement of economic interests needed to file a paper copy when they ran for another office.
  • That's what happened with Thurmond. He maintained he didn't have to file a paper copy because he already held public office -- part-time municipal prosecutor. But he had never filed a statement of economic interests until he filed electronically to run for state Senate.

    The court rightly noted that he shouldn't get a pass on filing a paper copy and that he shouldn't be rewarded for not following the law before he ran for state Senate.

    But in the end, he was rewarded. His timing was just better than the other nearly 250 people kicked out of the June 12 primary. He didn't get disqualified until after the primary, setting up the special primary to replace a disqualified candidate.

    As we've said before, what a mess. The legal parsing that has gone on since early May has been mind-numbing. And the fact that it is continuing into October is disgraceful.

    It should not be that hard to sort out what is required to run for office. The law should be clear and not contradictory.

    This wasn't, as some contend, a conspiracy to protect incumbents. This was a conspiracy of incompetence that includes lawmakers, who put conflicting statutes on the books, and party officials and state election officials who gave candidates bad advice. That bad advice was compounded by party officials who ignored the court's ruling in May about removing candidates who had not followed the law.

    Perhaps the most important lesson is that candidates themselves must be sure they understand and follow the law.

    Let's hope that we've learned from these mistakes and get this straightened out before the next primary season in 2014.