- Associated Press - Thursday, October 30, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina election commissioners agreed Thursday to let Republicans replace former House Speaker Bobby Harrell on the ballot, one week after he pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations and resigned from his seat as part of a plea deal.

But the state Supreme Court may have the final say.

The State Election Commission ordered a special GOP primary for the seat representing parts of Charleston and Dorchester counties, setting a one-week filing period to begin on Election Day. The primary would have to be followed later by a special general election to fill the seat, possibly Dec. 9.

Under the commission’s order, Harrell’s name remains on Tuesday’s ballot but the results will not count. Neither will the votes of about 1,000 people who already have voted absentee in the race.

The commissioners’ 5-0 decision came moments after they rejected Harrell’s withdrawal affidavit, explaining later that the formal statement was unnecessary.

Commission Chairman Billy Way said Harrell’s guilty plea already disqualifies him from running. Harrell, first elected to the House in 1992 and elected speaker by his colleagues in 2005, pleaded guilty last week to using campaign money for his own benefit. Under the plea, he cannot hold office for at least three years, the period of his probation.

Hours after the decision, an attorney for Democratic candidate Mary Tinkler asked the state’s highest court to immediately review the commission’s decision, overturn it and allow the general election to continue. The petition filed by William Wilkins says the decision ignores the timelines set in state law for substituting a candidate.

“This whole process reeks of politics,” Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison said immediately after the vote.

Allowing the Republicans a do-over election sets a terrible precedent that both parties will take advantage in the future, Harrison said.

He also called the decision unfair to Tinkler, as well as a third-party candidate, and said it disenfranchised voters.

But state GOP Chairman Matt Moore said the decision is about giving voters a choice. Republican attorney Butch Bowers said no one’s disenfranchised, since voters will get to vote again in the special election.

“It’s not about politics. It’s about the law,” Moore said.

The commissioners’ reasoning marked a reversal from the agency’s decision earlier this week.

On Monday, agency officials said the contest would go forward next week, though Harrell could not win, because he had not submitted the required withdrawal affidavit. That appeared to set up a Democratic win to the seat for the first time in four decades. The state GOP even urged Harrell to submit the “proper withdrawal documents.”

When Harrell submitted the affidavit late Tuesday, agency officials initially said commissioners would have to decide whether Harrell’s withdrawal met the legal definition of a legitimate, nonpolitical reason, and whether state law allowed for a special election to be ordered so close to Election Day.

Those were the issues that attorneys for both parties argued before the commissioners Thursday, though Bowers added, “You don’t have to rely on a nonpolitical reason. He’s been disqualified as part of a guilty plea with the government.”

Wilkins, Tinkler’s attorney, countered, “The affidavit doesn’t say he’s disqualified, and if he is, it’s because of his own doing.”

Before going behind closed doors, Way said his chief concern was the timing.

When commissioners came out, they issued the back-to-back votes without discussion.

Marci Andino, director of the State Election Commission, said the agency’s decision earlier this week came before anyone raised the issue of Harrell being disqualified.

All five commissioners were appointed by GOP Gov. Nikki Haley.

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