Clover Council election canceled

Six candidates have filed for six open seats on the Clover City Council in the Nov. 6 general election, yet they appear on no ballot because there is no council election.

The six, all incumbents, will stay in office without having had anyone vote for them again.

Why? Because of a little-known S.C. law that allows municipalities to cancel elections when there are no more candidates than there are seats. The state elections law was amended in 2002 as a way for cities to save money.

However, Steve Nivens of Clover believes his voting rights have been trampled on and his political choices narrowed. In the only state to have ever elected a U.S. senator as a write-in (Strom Thurmond in 1954) this law is being questioned, and in 2003, the S.C. Attorney General issued an opinion stating that the law's restriction on write-in voting is "constitutionally suspect."

"This is America, and having the choice of voting for a last-minute write-in candidate is part of our democracy," said Nivens, a Clover contractor.

Nivens said that if he had known about the law, he would have offered himself as a write-in candidate, just to force an election and give people a choice. In Clover, the council seats all are elected at-large, and the top six finishers become the next council. Two years ago, 13 candidates ran.

If Nivens had filed and ran, he believes the council members would have gotten a better sense of their popularity through their vote totals.

The revised law allows for "write-in" candidates, but they have to file within 14 days of the regular candidate filing deadline.

Nivens has raised questions about the law to York County Elections director Wanda Hemphill and state Rep. Herb Kirsh, a Clover Democrat.

"We get calls like this fairly often from people who are not aware that towns can cancel their elections and the elimination of last-minute write-in candidates," Hemphill said. "I'm not saying it's a good law or a bad law. But the main thing is that, for now, it's the law."

Kirsh said he understands the effort to save costs for towns, but he questions whether democracy is being properly served.

And in the Clover instance, he pointed out, there is no actual cost savings. The town has a contested mayor's race between incumbent Donnie Burris and former Mayor Donnie Grice, and a ballot has to be printed and poll workers hired.

"It just doesn't make sense how voters benefit from this law," said Kirsh, who has also served on the Clover council and as Clover mayor. "That seat does not belong to an incumbent; it belongs to the people. And I believe that challengers should not only be welcomed but encouraged to run for public office. Granted, write-in campaigns are hard to pull off, but hey, it's the American way that everybody has a chance."

Hemphill says she has heard from several small towns complaining about the cost of holding an election when there are no opposition candidates. For example, in 2005 the town of Sharon (population 471) paid $725 to hold its election. The money went for poll workers, ballot printing, legal notices and copying costs. This year, Sharon has one candidate for mayor and four candidates for four open council seats, all incumbents; they were declared winners and the election canceled.

Howard Duvall, executive director of the Municipal Association of South Carolina, said some members of his group favor the law, but he says, "It's a bad piece of legislation that shouldn't be on the books and probably won't be, once someone challenges it in court."

"The reason our attorney general says it's constitutionally suspect is exactly that," Duvall said. "It's unconstitutional to deny an elector the ability to write in a candidate at the election."

Scott Huffmon, an associate professor of political science at Winthrop University, says the election law has good intentions but is hard to defend because of the elimination of true write-in candidates.

"It's incumbent on municipalities to hold elections, which normally means allowing write-ins until the last day," Huffmon said. "In 99.99 percent of the time, is it truly necessary to hold an election when there is no opposition and making that municipality pay for that election? Is that an undue burden?

"There is a very strong belief, a borderline righteous tradition in this state, of allowing write-ins. Strom is gone, but he's not forgotten."