Democracy is never easy, but it is rarely more complicated than in South Carolina. Who is a resident and who has the right to vote? Who may challenge and for what reason?
These are troubling questions in this state where entire races and classes of people were barred by law from voting until only a few decades ago. Voting is still seen as exotic and mysterious in some circles. There are black families in this city in which no one has ever voted for their leaders. Likewise, many whites have never figured out how the system works and why it works to keep them poor and dispossessed.
Thuggery and chicanery are a fact of political life here; government reflects the worst traits of populism and elitism. In this house of mirrors called South Carolina, Republicans can run a voter registration drive outside a Wal-Mart, and that old segregationist, Strom Thurmond, could hold office for generations while hiding a biracial daughter.
In this political insane asylum, a black man named Ben Frasier has run for Congress nine times in the First Congressional District, calling himself a Democrat, while defending the Confederate flag atop the Statehouse, challenging a woman's right to abortion, and saying gays should be kept out of the military and prayer should be kept in public schools. Before he was a perennial congressional candidate, he was an aide to segregationist Congressman L. Mendel Rivers.
Whatever his motives, Frasier has been a thorn in the side of the state Democratic Party for more than 20 years. He has forced more serious and more electable candidates to face him in primaries. He has forced the party to pay for those primaries, yet he has never campaigned seriously, let alone been victorious in one of those primaries. But, to the chagrin of First District Democrats, he keeps throwing his hat into the ring.
Now the enigmatic Ben Frasier has filed to run against Linda Ketner in the Democratic congressional primary in June. On the surface, Frasier's hobby looks like democracy in action. But many in the Democratic Party say it looks like a sham. And they have reason to be suspicious. In 1990, political operative Rod Shealy paid a black man to run in a Republican primary in Charleston County. The tactic worked, bringing a record number of white voters to the polls in a racial backlash, but it earned Shealy a conviction and fine for violating state election laws.
Enter Nancy Seufert, a mother, housewife, and curious citizen. While Seufert is a Democrat, she says she is not connected with the Ketner congressional campaign. She simply wanted to know more about the perennial candidate who challenged Ketner.
Going online, it took her only 20 minutes to dig up a boatload of amazing data on Mr. Frasier. It seems that the man who claimed Wadmalaw Island as his home in his filing for the First Congressional District primary also has a home and a homestead tax credit in Maryland. He has four businesses in Maryland and claims himself as the resident agent for each of those in his filing with the Maryland attorney general's office. He has at least 12 times in recent years gone to court in various matters and on each of those occasions stated — presumably under oath — that he is a Maryland resident.
This was some of the documentation that Seufert took with her to the Charleston County Board of Elections last week to challenge Frasier's residency and his candidacy in the Democratic primary. In the hearing, she was opposed by Frasier's attorney, Tommy Goldstein, who argued that Frasier had a S.C. driver's license, voter registration card, and residence; therefore, he must be a resident. Goldstein separated the issues, saying that if Frasier had taken a homestead in Maryland, that was between him and the state of Maryland; it was not the business of the board of elections.
The board apparently agreed with Goldstein. It took them barely 10 minutes to reach a unanimous decision that Ben Frasier was a Charleston County resident and a legitimate congressional candidate.
Seufert was clearly shaken by the decision, though she took it graciously. I was surprised, as well, until I remembered that this is South Carolina.
We have some of the worst laws in the nation. We are unable to protect our environment, unable to protect our children, unable to protect our democratic process. In this state, somebody will always find a way to game the system.