Election speculation comes from all corners after S.C. primary

POLITICS AS UNUSUAL: Alvin M. Greene, displaying one of his campaign fliers, won the Democratic nomination for Senate in a South Carolina primary.
POLITICS AS UNUSUAL: Alvin M. Greene, displaying one of his campaign fliers, won the Democratic nomination for Senate in a South Carolina primary. (Mary Ann Chastain/associated Press)
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By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 15, 2010

It's the voting machines. No wait, it's random-selecting voters. Or, maybe, shadowy Republican operatives. Or Democratic antagonists.

Take your pick.

Everyone's got a theory about why Alvin M. Greene -- an unemployed veteran and political newbie who didn't trifle with campaign speeches or public appearances -- handily won South Carolina's Democratic Party nomination for the U.S. Senate last week. Protests have been lodged and the White House has chimed in (senior presidential adviser David Axelrod called Greene's win "a mysterious deal" on "Meet the Press"), yet the reason for the top shocker of the primary season remains anyone's guess.

Greene's opponent -- a Charleston city councilman, former judge and four-time member of the South Carolina legislature named Vic Rawl -- filed a complaint Monday with the South Carolina Democratic Party, then laid out his own theories in a news conference. He has heard from voters who selected his name only to have Greene's appear. He also says the voting machines "were purchased surplus from Louisiana after that state outlawed them."

The implication of that last charge is pretty juicy. Louisiana, after all, does political shenanigans more colorfully and brazenly than most.

South Carolina's election commission begs to differ about the provenance of the voting machines. Spokesman Chris Whitmire says the state's 12,000 iVotronic voting machines were bought brand-spanking-new from Election Systems and Software, an Omaha-based behemoth that boasts of operations in 39 states.

Asked to clear up the claim about South Carolina using Louisiana's rejects, Rawl spokesman Walter Ludwig said in an e-mail, "That was what the word around the state was -- heard it from several people."

Whether new or previously owned, the contraptions are villainous, in the eyes of Donald Fowler, a prominent South Carolina political strategist who served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 1995 to 1997 and is married to Carol Fowler, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party. Donald Fowler also thinks Greene was a Republican plant -- though he offers no proof and Greene has denied it every which way. But that, alone, doesn't explain the huge margin for Greene, who collected more than 100,000 votes, nearly 60 percent of the total, Fowler says.

"No logical pattern explains this to me except voting machine error or deliberate manipulation, and I've been doing this for 40 years," the Democratic macher intones.

Somehow, Greene, who lives with his father and hasn't worked since leaving the Army in August, came up with a $10,400 filing fee. Greene says the money came from personal savings, but he declined to provide documentation during an interview. His assertion has been questioned by Fowler and others. They're suspicious because Greene was assigned a public defender -- typically a service reserved for indigent defendants -- in November when he was charged with obscenity for allegedly showing pornography to a University of South Carolina student. (Greene says he is not guilty.) Fowler suspects Republicans put up the money and placed Greene in the race to embarrass South Carolina's Democratic Party. Imaginative, but not unprecedented.

Even some prominent South Carolina Republicans suspect Greene didn't come up with the money all by himself. But Katon Dawson -- a former South Carolina Republican Party chairman -- thinks the culprit lurks inside the Democratic ranks.

"I suspect somebody inside the Democratic Party had a problem with Vic Rawl or wanted to create some mischief in that primary," Dawson says. (Dawson, by the way, thinks Axelrod was wrong to weigh in on the race. "The White House really needs to mind its own business and get on over there and fix this thing in the gulf, and stop worrying about the Democratic primary in South Carolina," he says.)

Shenanigans are always a possibility, considering that "low-grade fraud and back-stabbing is well within the standard deviation of the mean in South Carolina politics," says Scott Huffmon, a politics expert at South Carolina's Winthrop University. But Huffmon says no single factor can explain Greene's win.

Huffmon isn't buying the bit about Greene being a Republican plant. Why bother, he asks, given that incumbent Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) was not considered vulnerable. He also doesn't give much weight to another prevailing theory, the one about large numbers of Republicans crossing over to vote in the Democratic primary -- a perfectly legal move because South Carolinians don't register by party. Huffmon doubts Republicans would have given up a chance to vote in their own hotly contested gubernatorial race, in which upstart Nikki Haley defeated three strong candidates.

Huffmon is more intrigued by the possibility that voters selected Greene because his name appeared first on the ballot, a phenomenon known as "primacy" that occurs when voters know little about candidates or don't care much about races. He also notes that Greene is a name more common than Rawl among African Americans, and wonders whether African American voters, who often make up more than half of the voters in South Carolina's Democratic primaries, might have chosen him for that reason.

It's been argued all sorts of ways on the Internet -- that folks saw Alvin Greene on the ballot and thought of Al Green, the gospel great. But wait, some may have seen Vic Rawl and conjured Lou Rawls, the soul singer. An "e" at the end of the victor's name was seen by some analysts as a traditionally African American spelling. But then Graham Greene comes to mind, and off the horde flits to another theory.

Staff writers Jon Cohen and Garance Franke-Ruta contributed to this report.

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