Re-Enfranchising South Carolina's Republican Primary Voters


On October 1, 2019, Republican voters filed a lawsuit alleging that the Executive Committee of the South Carolina Republican Party illegally canceled its presidential primary in violation of its own rules and state law. The plaintiffs include former South Carolina Member of Congress Bob Inglis of Greenville County and Frank Heindel of Charleston County. The plaintiffs are represented by Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan nonprofit, and Sowell & DuRant, a South Carolina litigation firm. 

On September 7, the South Carolina GOP’s Executive Committee voted to cancel the 2020 Republican presidential primary. The vote was not unanimous, and faced immediate rebuke from within the Republican Party. According to the South Carolina Republican Party’s rules, the state party can only change its nomination process at a state convention. The state party did not change the process at the 2019 state convention. Accordingly, as observers have noted, canceling the primary through an executive committee vote violates Republican Party rules. It also violates South Carolina election law, which requires political parties to obey their own rules. 

In 2007 and again in 2013, the Republican-led South Carolina legislature changed state election law, making it harder to cancel primaries. Analogies to past instances of primary cancellation in 1984 and 2004when Presidents Reagan and Bush were runningare flawed both because the law was entirely different and because the incumbent presidents faced no opposition in South Carolina. 

In a 2014 party resolution, the South Carolina GOP recognized the value of its presidential primary, stating that “anything other than a fair and legitimate primary where state party staff and officers avoid even the appearance of intervention could irrevocably damage the integrity of our primary process and inadvertently affect our ‘First in the South’ presidential preference status.”

Former Rep. Bob Inglis said:

“I’m a life-long Republican, who has served as both an elected member of the House of Representatives as well as a party official. I’m participating in this lawsuit because the cancelation of the primary by a small handful of party insiders denied me—and every other South Carolina Republican—our voice in defining what the Republican Party is and who it supports. I’m fighting for all of us to get our voices back.”

Mr. Heindel said:

“Our first-in-the-South primary gives South Carolina Republicans an incredible voice in selecting our party’s presidential candidate. The Executive Committee’s unlawful decision to cancel the primary deprives me and my fellow Republicans of the opportunity to participate in the democratic process. We are asking the courts to intervene, to ensure that the backroom dealings of a small group of party insiders cannot disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters.” 

Soren Dayton from Protect Democracy said: 

“When the South Carolina Republican Party’s Executive Committee voted to deprive Republican voters of the opportunity to help select the presidential candidate of their choice, it did so in violation of its own rules, South Carolina election law, and the principles of democracy.”

Cameron Kistler from Protect Democracy said:

The Executive Committee’s decision to cancel the primary is both illegal and deeply un-American. We don’t cancel elections whenever one candidate is ahead of their rivals in the polls months ahead of an election. After all, if we did, Hillary Clinton—and not Donald Trump—would currently be President.”

This is a project of United to Protect Democracy.

What South Carolinians Are Saying

Richard Eckstrom, Republican South Carolina Comptroller:

This isn’t about President Trump. Nor is it about Mark Sanford, nor of either of the other announced Republican challengers. It’s about voters. Voters want a say and they should have one.”

Arthur Ravenel, former Republican Congressman:

“I am dismayed that the GOP State Executive Committee has decided not to have a presidential primary. Political primaries are vital functions of welcome, inclusion and critical information.”

Rob Godfrey, former Communications Director to former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley:

“This was a shady backroom deal where a small group of party insiders made a big decision that stops hundreds of thousands of voters from participating in the process.” 

Rouzy Vafaie, former Charleston County Republican Party official:

“Essentially, our right to a democratic process as Republicans has had a price tag put on it: $1.2 million. Are you kidding? Some 49 state executive committeemen — one brave soul voted for a primary — have taken my right, and yours to vote. Not only that, but they’ve broken the South Carolina GOP charter promising members a vote as the first Southern primary after New Hampshire’s early contest.”

Chip Felkel, GOP political consultant:

“‘What’s the RNC and the Trump campaign afraid of? . . . This to me, no matter how they spin it, suggests there’s weakness they don’t want to reveal.”

Brian Hicks, Charleston Post and Courier Columnist:

“. . . voting is a constitutional right, this doesn’t look good and it could draw unflattering comparisons to banana republics that cancel elections to stamp out opposition.”

Katrina Shealy, South Carolina Republican State Senator:

“It sets the precedent you don’t give people the choice to vote for somebody else if they want to . . . . Being somebody who has fought to get on the ballot, I always think people should be given the choice.”

Jonathon Hill, South Carolina Republican State Representative:


“I do think that competition is generally good, helps us to have better candidates in the end and so I would have liked to have seen a debate in South Carolina, particularly in regards to the administration and the challenger’s approaches to deficit. I’m disappointed that didn’t happen.”

South Carolina GOP on the Primary

Statements by the South Carolina GOP about the importance of the First in the South Primary

Legal filings

In a 2015 federal court case, the South Carolina GOP explained the importance of the primary. They said that the presidential primary’s

“status as the ‘First in the South’ Republican primary is critically important to the continued status and vitality of the SCGOP as a leader in presidential politics in our country.” … “[A failure to hold a presidential primary] would cause irreparable harm to the SCGOP from which it would likely never recover.”  

Indeed, the Republican Party has gone so far as to argue to a court that canceling a presidential primary would cause:

 “irreparable harm to the public interest” because  “the citizens of South Carolina deserve an opportunity to vote on the Republican nominee for President of the United States.”

Party resolution

The South Carolina GOP passed a 2014 resolution demanding neutrality in a presidential primary and explained the value of the primary:

WHEREAS, spirited and competitive primaries are a healthy way to grow the Republican Party through increased primary participation, and 

WHEREAS, Republicans do not wish to be perceived as a party that simply selects its nominees in a backroom or underhanded fashion, and . . . 

WHEREAS, anything other than a fair and legitimate primary where state party staff and officers avoid even the appearance of intervention could irrevocably damage the integrity of our primary process and inadvertently affect our “First in the South” presidential preference status . . . 

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, that all state Republican Party staff shall treat all campaigns equally, maintaining public neutrality in the primary process[.]”


Help Protect Democracy

History has shown that the best way to protect democracy is by standing united in its defense. Donate to help us to scale up our efforts to educate, advocate, organize, and litigate on behalf of the values we all hold dear.


Be an informed American.

An engaged and informed public is at the heart of American democracy. Sign up to receive updates that will keep us all informed about the threats we face and how we can fight to protect our democracy together.