South Carolina House Speaker vows to fix loophole in local election law

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Published: Aug. 24, 2023 at 7:29 PM EDT
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SUMTER, S.C. (WIS) - South Carolina’s most powerful state lawmaker is vowing to change a law that kept more than 7,200 Sumter residents from having a voting city councilman for the last nine months.

Speaker of the House Murrell Smith (R-Sumter) represents a group of Sumter citizens in the city’s Ward 1, which covers the northernmost part of the city.

Since November 2022, Ward 1 has faced a perfect storm of death, appeals, and laws which prevented any voting representation at the city level.

“I would apologize for this issue, I think disenfranchising citizens of their ability to be a part of representative democracy should not occur, unfortunately, this was a unicorn situation,” Smith said.

“I think those of us who have the ability and opportunity to try and correct this will deal with this immediately.”

The “unicorn situation”

On Nov. 2, 2022, Ward 1′s incumbent Thomas Lowery died.

On Nov. 8, Sumter municipal election voters in Ward 1 sent candidates Anthony Gibson and Joe Brown to a run-off. Gibson won two weeks later.

Reginald Evans didn’t make the run-off, coming in last place (out of five candidates) with just 62 out of 999 votes.

Sumter County Court records show Evans began a legal campaign on Nov. 10 to challenge the results. He filed multiple appeals, taking it all the way to the S.C. Supreme Court.

His argument was two-fold and he presented both without success.

  1. He claimed he was informed people outside the ward voted.
  2. He claimed there weren’t enough votes two precincts when their tallies are compared in the Ward 1 race and his simultaneous campaign for Sumter County School Board District 9 (Morris College and Folsom Park).

He lost his initial challenge with the county election commission (at least one commissioner cited a lack of evidence), twice in circuit court (which found no error in the commission’s decision), and twice in the S.C. Supreme Court (by failing to order a transcript from the circuit court).

However, his continued appeals successfully triggered a state law that kept Gibson from taking his seat.

The law in question is section 5-15-140 which covers local elections. It reads in part:

“…The notice of appeal shall act as a stay of further proceedings pending the appeal.”

The same chapter allows for incumbents to remain in power until the election challenge is settled, but Ward 1 didn’t have a living incumbent.

Evans said the lack of representation for the district is not his responsibility, falsely claiming Governor McMaster could appoint a councilman.

South Carolina’s Governor is empowered to appoint county, not municipal, officers.

“[The local election appeals process] is dangerous, but I do it with a clear conscience,” Evans said.

On Aug. 10, the S.C. Supreme Court denied Evan’s request for a rehearing.

Evans appealed to federal court on Aug. 9.

On Aug. 17, a magistrate judge recommended the case be sent back to the state level, where it’s been settled. Any decision from a federal District Judge is unclear.

Sumter City Attorney Danny Crowe sent WIS a statement that it’s his understanding the case has been concluded and the federal appeal will not be successful.

Sumter City spokesperson Shelley Kile confirmed Gibson is still scheduled to be sworn in on Aug. 29.

Smith said he wants to keep the situation from repeating itself.

“I think that everyone believed that this was going to go to the circuit court that circuit court would rule at some point, and it would be in a quick manner,” he said.

Smith said he’s been reaching out to City of Sumter leadership and the S.C. Election Commission for its feedback, but he views the stay as an issue.

“I think we may need to look at the stay as well as maybe expedite the appeals. In some cases in the law the Supreme Court need to immediately takes things up,” he said.

He said he is aiming to address the issue in the next legislative session in January 2024.

“Everybody’s got the right to exercise any protest in accordance with the law. So you can’t deny that right. But also, you’ve got to accept reality too,” he said.

Smith recently endorsed former President Donald Trump. Trump has repeatedly made false claims about his loss in the 2020 election and is facing criminal charges for attempting to overturn it.

“I think you have to accept elections. That’s just part and parcel of the democratic process and there can be anomalies, and certainly with the Presidential Election I think you saw a lot of anomalies up there.

End of the day democracy doesn’t function unless you comply with the elections and the voice of the people,” he said.

In the meantime, Gibson has been attending council meetings and working to provide Ward 1 representation when he can.

“Hearing the needs of the people and I can’t do anything, because my hands are tied until this whole thing is over. I’ve had moments of frustration, but you know, I trusted the court system,” he said.

Gibson said Evans was using his rights, and while he’s not upset, Gibson said he worries about the precedent. “If we don’t get this law changed soon, that there will be more people that will try this in the future. All it’s going to do is divide us, it’s not going to bring us closer together,” Gibson said.

Gibson said he wants to see elected leaders installed while the appeals play out.

“If you don’t have any evidence or proof that there was any fraud, then that person should be able to take their seat and move forward. This should never happen again. That loophole has to be fixed,” he said.

Gibson said he’s excited to get an opportunity to tackle Ward 1′s issues, including blight and safety.

“Now that I have three years three months left to serve. I’ve got to maximize that, I’ve got to make every moment count,” he said.

Gibson said he had faith that Smith would succeed in making the change.

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