Barnwell cancels city council election, Williston council faces same question

There will not be an election held this year for Barnwell City Council. Williston Town Council will decide whether to hold their election during a special-called meeting Wednesday at 6 p.m. at the town hall.

The candidates who filed in Barnwell will be awarded seats on the council without receiving any votes. And yes, it's legal.

Barnwell City Council voted unanimously to not hold the election during a special-called meeting Tuesday evening. The consensus among the council members was it's the "safest" thing to do given what the law says.

Section 7-13-190 of the South Carolina state law allows municipalities to not hold elections when candidates on the ballot are running unopposed. In fact, the law says if no person has filed to be a write-in candidate then the candidate who filed during the normal filing period must be declared the winner by the authority in charge of the election - in Barnwell's case, the county Voter Registration and Election Office.

All candidates on the ballot in both towns are running unopposed and no one filed as a write-in candidate before the July 19 deadline.

Even if there were an election - originally scheduled for Sept. 10 for both towns - the law says the votes cannot be counted.

The law conflicts with what has always been part of the American democratic tradition: You can vote for whom you want when you want.

"It used to be that you could write-in the day of election," Mayor Pro Tem Pickens Williams said.

"Well that's the way the (U.S.) constitution reads," Mayor Ed Lemon replied.

"You still can, if you hold the election," Naomi Defrenn, Barnwell County elections director, said.

But in this case, those votes wouldn't be counted.

If the election were held and a write-in candidate received more votes than a candidate whose name was on the ballot it wouldn't matter because the law says the candidate who filed to be on the ballot must be declared the winner.

"It opens it up for a protest," Defrenn said.

"We're more likely to get a lawsuit that way," Councilman J.T. Atkinson said about holding an election.

The law has been on the books for 10 years. But when the situation arose in the past, Barnwell and Williston always held elections. And that's because the towns' attorney, Thomas Boulware, always insisted on it.

So why is this happening now?

At the regular July council meeting in Williston, Interim Town Administrator Roger LeDuc made the point that an election was not necessary if the candidates had no opposition on the ballot. LeDuc said when he was working for the city of Aiken they did not hold elections when this situation came about.

In fact, at the Barnwell meeting Tuesday Defrenn said there are only five or six municipalities in the state that have elections when candidates run unopposed. And Williston and Barnwell are two of them.

There are over 270 incorporated municipalities in the state, she added.

Boulware was at the Barnwell meeting but did not speak during the discussion. The council members already know what his position is: hold the election.

The law doesn't say an election can't be held, but since the votes can't be counted the polling would have no real power. Additionally, not holding the election saves money - about $4,000 for Barnwell and $2,000 for Williston.

In Williston, Mayor Tommy Rivers has decided to step down after 20 years at the helm. Current councilman Jason Stapleton is up for re-election but is running for mayor. Council members Wanda Matthews and Jerry Holmes are also stepping down.

Three new faces are running for at-large council seats in Williston. The three - Chris Rivers, Dwayne Cagle and Shawn Eric Moody - will be awarded the vacated council seats if there is no election.

On Barnwell City Council, current councilmen Benjamin Duncan, District 3, and Robert Pattillo, District 5, filed for re-election while J.T. Atkinson, District 1, did not.

William B. Dozier filed to run for the District 1 seat. No one else filed to run for any of the three seats.

"If you hold an election and don't get any votes, are you still elected?" Councilman W.C. Black asked as other councilmen laughed.

"According to the law ... you'd be safe." Defrenn answered.