In a year when South Carolina deserves a prize for this election's most bizarre, vicious, topsy-turvy campaigns, the state's Democratic Party has finally shown some decency and common sense.
Following an exhaustive public hearing last week, South Carolina Democrats decisively rejected Senate candidate Vic Rawl's request to do over the contested June 8 primary. Rawl had argued that voting machine problems and other irregularities called into question a surprise win by his opponent, Alvin Greene, an unemployed, unknown Army veteran who did virtually no campaigning.
You can't blame Rawl for trying. He logged 17,000 miles on his car, did extensive radio, TV and editorial board interviews, and put out thousands of robo-calls, e-mails and bumper stickers, his campaign manager Walter Ludwig testified at the June 17 hearing.
Without a paper record, even voting machine flash cards won't really clear up the mystery of South Carolina's weird Senate primary.
Greene, by contrast, made no speeches or public appearances, had no campaign website and apparently spent no money beyond the $10,440 filing fee. To cap it off, he faces a felony obscenity charge -- news which broke after his upset win. Yet Greene beat Rawl with 59 percent of the vote.
Still, a ruling to invalidate the controversial Senate primary would have set a terrible precedent. It would probably have violated the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which requires states with a history of discrimination -- including South Carolina -- to obtain Justice Department approval, or pre-clearance, before making voting rules changes.
Legitimate questions remain, of course. House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., a civil rights champion, has called for an investigation after leveling the most sensational allegation roiling the primary -- that Republicans meddled in the race and that Greene was a GOP "plant."
State Republicans say that allegation makes no sense, logically or even mathematically. Popular incumbent Jim DeMint is favored to win regardless of who he runs against. GOP primary turnout topped 422,000, noted state Republican Party Executive Director Joel Sawyer, setting a record and leaving precious few GOP voters to cross over. Democrats, by contrast, turned out fewer than 197,000 voters -- less than half the GOP turnout.
"When you look at the numbers for turnout in the Republican and Democratic primaries, it's just not believable that there was crossover voting," Sawyer said. "Frankly, the Democratic party is just grasping at straws."
Political analysts have floated other theories to explain Greene's surprise win -- his name came first on the ballot; he drew the African-American vote; neither candidate was particularly well known.
But Rawl has zeroed in on South Carolina's touch-screen voting machines as the real culprit. At last week's hearing, Rawl trotted out a parade of forensic, academic and computer experts who pointed to security, software and statistical irregularities.
Election protection advocates have seized on the inexplicable primary outcome as evidence of why such machines should have a voter-verifiable paper trail. South Carolina is now one of just a handful of states that offer paperless machines as voters' only option.
States all over the country embraced touch-screen machines after the Help America Vote Act freed up federal money for them in 2002. But voters lost confidence in the machines after experts challenged their security and reliability, and now a full 33 states give every voter some form of paper record to review.
"There is no state more representative of the need for a verifiable standard for nationwide systems than South Carolina," said Sean Flaherty, a policy analyst for the California-based advocacy group Verified Voting.
The brand of voting machine that South Carolina voters use -- the ES&S iVotronic touch-screen machine -- has proved particularly controversial. Election law blogger Brad Friedman has reported numerous instances of ES&S machines allegedly causing votes to disappear, to flip to the wrong candidate and to produce electronic results that didn't match with paper trails.
South Carolina election officials have said the machines and the primary election outcome are reliable. Still, civil rights and good government activists have called on the state election commission, the South Carolina attorney general, the Federal Election Commission and even the Justice Department to intervene. They have asked that state officials preserve voting data, such as forensic copies of voting machine flash cards and memory chips, for a full investigation.
Reform advocates have also called on state legislators to revive proposals for voter-verifiable paper trails in South Carolina. But amidst a recession, lawmakers lack the funding or political will to revamp the voting system, admitted state legislator J. Todd Rutherford, a Democrat.
And without a paper record of how voters meant to cast their ballots, even voting machine flash cards won't really clear up the mystery of South Carolina's weird Senate primary.
"Without a hard copy of voter intent, it's virtually impossible to confirm or disconfirm the apparent outcome of an election," conceded Flaherty, of Verified Voting. The upshot is that voters will probably never know what really happened. And inevitably, Jim DeMint will face Alvin Greene in the general election.
It's a bitter pill for South Carolina Democrats to swallow. But the alternative -- throwing out an election result because it defies expectations -- would have been even worse. As state Democratic Party chairwoman Carol Fowler succinctly put it at last week's hearing: "Upsets happen."