Greenville, SC (written by Tim Smith & Nathaniel Carey/Greenville Online) -- Even without the rain, Tuesday's primary elections in South Carolina were threatening to set new marks for voter disinterest.
A toxic combination of too few choices, ballot confusion, frustration with candidates being removed from their races and a suspicion that incumbents were somehow involved in doing what they had to do to protect their seats resulted in a record low turnout Tuesday of 9.9 percent of registered voters, 9.38 percent for Greenville County.
The rain didn't help, nor did last-minute lawsuits from decertified candidates trying to get a judge somewhere to stop the election.
But political experts, lawmakers, candidates and voters told GreenvilleOnline.com that the force driving Tuesday's poll avoidance was a feeling by many that someone or something somewhere had hijacked the election, leaving few, if any, choices and no reasonable explanation why voters were presented with such a mess.
"South Carolina has just turned into a political banana republic," said Phil Noble, president of the South Carolina New Democrats, a Democratic reform group. "If a country in Africa had an election and 9 percent of the people turned out, we would hardly applaud it as a step toward democracy. We would say it was a joke. We've sunk to third-world, banana republic level."
Sen. Mike Fair of Greenville, who survived one of the toughest primary battles of his career, likened the state to Cuba, with powerful forces plucking challengers from an election amid confusing and seemingly arcane explanations.
"The big thing, I think, is anger," he said Wednesday of the low turnout. "There was a frustration among voters, you know, 'What's the use?'"
While the redrawing of the state's political boundaries played a part, as well as the fact that most lawmakers faced no opposition when they filed to run again in March, the overwhelming catalyst for voters' frustration was the ballot mess, a wave of candidate banishment ordered by the state's highest court after Supreme Court justices ruled that a 20-year-old paperwork rule wasn't being properly followed.
Instead of filing paper financial disclosure forms with party officials, many candidates, using advice from the state and their parties, filed them electronically with the State Ethics Commission. Incumbents, however, were exempt from the law.
Feuding lawmakers, some of whom would benefit from the court rulings, failed to find a solution before adjourning earlier this month.
200 stricken from ballots
The result was more than 200 candidates stricken from ballots, the canceling of some counties' primaries altogether, lawsuits and shaking heads by voters who wondered why common sense couldn't prevail.
"I think a lot of voters just turned off," said Bruce Ransom, a Clemson University political science professor. "There was a lot of confusion, a lot of cynicism and concerns about whether what happened with decisions were sort of like an incumbent protection policy."
Ben Riddle of Mauldin said this would have been his first opportunity to vote in an election, but he decided to skip it after the Supreme Court ruled that some candidates were ineligible.
"Essentially I think it's embarrassing for the state of South Carolina to have such a political conundrum right before the election," Riddle said. "More or less you're turning off a lot of young people specifically and disenfranchising a voter base that you'll ultimately need to succeed politically."
Riddle said he would have supported Tommie Reece, a Greenville County School Board member who was running for the state Senate District 6 seat that Fair won until she was kicked off the ballot. Riddle said he would support a write-in campaign for her in November, but was disgusted with the way the ballot controversy was handled and decided not to vote.
"For me personally, it wasn't so much about the time," he said. "I got off work and had the time. More or less, I didn't want to contribute to something I didn't think was properly set up."
Bruce Moody, a financial consultant who lives in Greenville, joined the masses who didn't vote and blamed it on a mixture of financial market difficulties and a loss of confidence in the process of voting.
"When you rip away the confidence that anything significant can change and put financial pressure on top of that, it's only natural that people lose confidence in the entire process," Moody said.
Simpsonville's Brian Reingold, voted, but called the ballot issues "troublesome."
"Some of the conversations that I had with folks that I socialize with, some of them obviously didn't have their party represented at the end so they were looking for the second best candidate," Reingold said. "A lot of people, me included, it's about the issues really, not about the person."
Steve Bright of Taylors commented on Facebook that he voted but for the first time in his life, he considered not voting.
"The candidates are all the same and the process is a sham," he wrote.
Ken Cothran of Clemson wrote on Facebook that he was disgusted by the process with candidates kicked off the ballot and called it a "sham and a farce." Though in a small minority that voted, Mary Alice Shand of Greenville said she went to the polls as usual.
"I always vote in every election because it's my civic duty, and I do keep up with what's going on," Shand said, adding that her choices of candidates were unaffected by the ballot fallout.
Officials hadn't expected a high turnout before the primary. While a general election in the state can attract more than 50 percent of registered voters, primaries generally draw half of that or less.
This year's GOP presidential primary, for instance, drew 21.6 percent of registered voters. The general election in 2010, by contrast, drew 51.89 percent. Primaries that year attracted 24.11 percent.
In the last presidential election in 2008, 76 percent of voters went to the polls, according to the State Election Commission. But only 20.33 percent that year showed up for primaries.
Fair said the higher the office on the ballot, the more interest there is and the higher the turnout. With no statewide races on the ballot Tuesday, interest waned.
Adding to that situation, many incumbents faced no opposition. And when some of that opposition was removed by the courts, some voters wondered why they should bother.
Sen. Larry Martin, a Pickens Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, feared the primary could turn into a political train wreck, which is why he said he worked to find some political solution in the week after the Supreme Court's decision. But the Senate split into factions favoring different deadlines for candidate filings and inaction prevailed.
That led, Martin said, to voter frustration.
"I believe voters had heard on more than one race that their vote wasn't going to count," he said. "With every candidate that was knocked off, with every candidate that was deemed ineligible, the electorate lost enthusiasm and lost one more reason to go out and vote. That was my fear from the very moment the Supreme Court ruled."
Sen. John Land, a Clarendon County Democrat who retired this year after 35 years in the Senate, said Tuesday's primary was the first time in 48 years the legislative primaries in his county had no opponents. "Not a healthy sign," he said.
"It's a trend in South Carolina of less interest in primaries but more interest in general elections," he said.
State Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian said the ballot controversy didn't just affect candidates for legislative seats but also struck candidates for local governments.
"Without that base interest in local stuff, I think it diminished interest in the election," he said. "It was almost like, in many of these instances, like we were having special elections because there was one race."
But, by far, the source of confusion, anger and frustration by voters Tuesday was the ballot mess.
Greenville City Councilwoman Lillian Brock Flemming said rumors circulated that she was being struck from the ballot in her unsuccessful race against Rep. Karl Allen in the Democratic primary for Senate District 7.
It wasn't true, she said, but that could have kept some of her supporters home.
One result of the candidates being removed was that it removed the need to vote in many areas. Voting at 300 polling places in 14 counties was canceled.
Chip Felkel, a Greenville Republican political consultant, said he believes the ballot mess had a "good bit" to do with the voting turnout.
But, like Noble, he thinks there is something else at play.
Caring to vote
"There truly is a disconnect out here between this process and the voting public," he said.
"That means 90 percent of the people who are eligible to vote in South Carolina don't care enough about the nomination process to participate. And when that happens, we nominate people who have a hard time appealing to the independents or the folks who aren't necessarily engaged in the process. That's sad. I think it's a very sad indictment of our disconnect with the process."
And he doesn't just blame the parties, the courts or lawmakers. He also believes voters have a responsibility they are shirking.
"I think the system is not nearly as bad as people think it is," he said. "The system, if you participate in it, has a lot of merits to it. There has got to be some individual responsibility in terms of taking responsibility for who governs you. We can complain about France and other countries and their political systems all day long but they vote 85 and 90 percent."
Noble says the state's political system is in dire need of reform. Tuesday's results, he said, are just the latest evidence of that.
"I think people have just become disgusted with the broken and corrupt politics of South Carolina and they are just saying, 'To hell with it,'" he said.
The process of redrawing the state's political boundaries has become more of an "incumbent protection system," he said, making it even more difficult for challengers.