The Bullies of South Carolina

As a defender of fringe candidate rights, I was disturbed when I read the news coming out of South Carolina yesterday.

Stephen Colbert’s rejection

by state Democrats is getting headlines, but it was actually another, less-publicized denial that irked me most.

Henry Hewes , a New York Democrat, was also left off the Democratic ballot in South Carolina. Hewes paid the $2,500 filing fee and then waited for his candidacy to be approved by the party’s executive council. But Carol Fowler, the chairwoman of the state party, told the New York Times that nobody had heard of him before, so he didn’t get on the ballot. Eight mainstream Democrats—including Mike Gravel—did. 

Hewes wasn’t going to win the primary. He probably wasn’t even going to win a delegate. But if there’s anything that American democracy should allow, it’s delusions of grandeur. I’ve talked to quite a few fringe candidates for president, and they all share a common desire: to achieve the American dream. Granted, their American dreams include ridding the world of Zionists , drastically altering the Constitution , and restaging the Scopes trial , but they’re American dreams nonetheless. Hewes wants to abolish Social Security, get our troops out of Iraq, and boost the minimum wage. Sounds pretty presidential to me.

I understand the need to have financial barriers in place to sift through the candidates who run on a lark. But New Hampshire charges only $1,000 (which covers all the costs) and runs a pretty impressive operation . If South Carolina wants to charge an extra $1,500, that’s their prerogative.  

But on top of that, they add two unnecessary criteria. First, S.C. Dems want their presidential candidates to be nationally viable. Why does a candidate need national appeal? Are the state Democrats worried about becoming a national laughingstock? (The Colbert rejection suggests as much.) Joe Werner, the executive director of the state party, told me that having too many candidates becomes unwieldy. To be blunt, democracy can be a bit unwieldy at times. Deal with it.

Secondly, the candidate needs to have campaigned in South Carolina before they officially get on the Democratic ballot. What’s the incentive for a fringe candidate to spend valuable resources on campaigning in the Palmetto State if they aren’t even guaranteed a spot on the ballot? The guy has raised only about $10,000, according to Green Papers . A round trip flight from New York City to South Carolina would eat away 2 percent of Hewes’ fund-raising.  

South Carolina Democrats’ $2,500 filing fee already weeded out all but two fringe candidates—Hewes and Colbert. It prevented 10 of the long-shot Democrats who registered for the New Hampshire primary from registering in South Carolina. So why impose these extra hurdles? The $2,500 fee is enough. (The Democrats have to pay an extra $20,000 to put a candidate on a ballot, but Werner told me that the financial cost didn’t factor into the council’s decision.)

Henry Hewes is not Stephen Colbert. He was not running for president for publicity or to expose the inane quirks of the American presidential process. He was running for president to follow a dream and because he thought his ideas could fix the country. Unfortunately, South Carolina Democrats won’t even let him try.