Elections canceled for Barnwell, Williston councils

There will not be an election held this year for Barnwell City Council and Williston Town Council after both bodies voted on the issue this week.

The candidates who filed to run in both elections will be awarded council seats without receiving any votes. And yes, it's legal.

Barring any unforeseen circumstances, current councilman Jason Stapleton will become mayor of Williston in October. And the town will also have three new councilmen - Chris Rivers, Dwayne Cagle and Shawn Eric Moody.

In Barnwell, current councilmen Benjamin Duncan and Robert Pattillo will retain their seats for District 3 and District 5, respectively. Newcomer William B. Dozier will be awarded the seat assigned to District 1. The man who currently holds that seat, J.T. Atkinson, did not file for re-election.

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.

Williston Town Council held a meeting Wednesday night and voted 4-0 against holding the election. Mayor Tommy Rivers and Jason Stapleton recused themselves from the meeting to avoid any conflict of interest. Councilman Jerry Holmes, who is not running for re-election this year, was not at the meeting.

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 - 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.

That was part of the discussion during the Barnwell meeting.

"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, the law still says the candidate who filed to be on the ballot must be declared the winner.

"It opens it up for a protest," DeFrenn said at the Barnwell meeting.

"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 told council 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 both meetings but did not speak. Council members know what his position is: hold the election.

When asked if he had anything to say about the outcome after the Williston meeting, Boulware simply shook his head "no."

At the Barnwell meeting, council members discussed the issue for over 10 minutes before voting. But there wasn't any discussion amongst council members at the Williston meeting. They went straight to a vote after LeDuc told council about the research he did on the law.

He said he got opinions from the Municipal Association of South Carolina and the state Election Commission. Both organizations told him the election should not be held based on what the law says.

"To have an election would be against state law" once the deadline to file as a write-in candidate passes and all the candidates are unopposed, LeDuc said he was told by the Election Commission. He said they also referred him to section 7-13-190 of the state law.

LeDuc said he also spoke with mayors across the state who told him they do not hold elections when all the candidates are running unopposed.

Williston's meeting lasted about five minutes.

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.

So what happens now?

Things will still work the same way as if there were an election. The Monday after the election was scheduled to be held the "winners" will be certified by the county election office, and the new council members, and mayor, will take power at each town's regular council meeting in October.

Regarding the issue of whether to have elections, Barnwell Councilman W.C. Black may have said it best.

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

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