PAWLEYS ISLAND, S.C. (WMBF) - In the quaint and historic town of Pawleys Island, South Carolina’s election laws are debated as candidates and homeowners question what it means to be a resident.
“If you are going to be an elected official of a town you 'ought to live within that town,” said Pawleys Island Mayor Jimmy Braswell. “I think you need to be part of the true island community and right now that isn’t the case.”
The Grand Strand coast is filled with second homes of people who flock to the beach intermediately throughout the year. Some homeowners spend entire seasons at their second home, others frequently rent the house out, while others live just miles inland.
Whatever the circumstance, residents don’t occupy their second homes permanently so should they be allowed to vote in that area? Should they be allowed to run for election? These questions are at the center of the Pawleys Island election for mayor and city council.
The challenging mayoral candidate, Brian Henry, is running by using his business’ address on the island, the Seaview Inn. He owns another property less than a mile off the island.
He said he’s registered to vote at the Sea View Inn, his vehicles are registered there and it’s the address on his driver’s license.
The inn is also closed for around four months of the year, according to its website.
“I’ve never claimed to live here full-time. This is a part-time residence, but I don’t have to live here full-time to claim it as my residence,” Henry said.
South Carolina’s law doesn’t set time limits on how long or often a person lives in a location to be eligible to vote in that area.
Under state law, a person is eligible to vote and run for election in the area where their ‘domicile’ is. Domicile is a legal term that is defined by the law as “a person’s fixed home where he has an intention of returning to when he is absent.”
“The fact that a person rents or does not own a dwelling is not relevant in determining if it is his domicile. Residency is primarily determined by a person’s intent,” explained Butch Bowers, an attorney and former chairman of the South Carolina State Election Commission.
To define intent, the state lists 11 different factors to consider, including the residence of children, mailing address, car registration, etc. However, Bowers said the predominant factor is a person’s intent.
“As long as they declare that as their intent is to make that their domicile that’s the end of the inquiry and it is a legitimate thing to do,” Bowers said.
Bowers goes on to explain that individuals can’t claim offices or businesses that have no legitimate place for a person to sleep.
Bowers represented Georgetown County councilman Austin Beard earlier this year when he was investigated for putting a P.O. box as his address. Beard ended up resigning. In Beard’s case, there was no home at the address he was claiming he lived in.
Billy Jenkinson is also a lawyer but he sees the factors a little different.
“Where they put up their Christmas tree I like to say,” Jenkinson said. “Where their dog is, you know those kinds of common sense things that you have to make a subjective thing opposed to an objective decision.”
The law does allow a lot of room for subjectivity because it’s hard to prove people’s motives.
“No one can tell me, ‘Brian, you're lying. You don't intend to return.’ Who's going to say that to me? Because only I know and my wife know what our intentions are and we fully intend to return here,” Henry explained.
Jenkinson said because of the looseness of the ruling it requires honesty and fair play.
“We trust the system and we trust the laws and these folks will all be honest with themselves when they walk in the ballot box and make a determination,” he said.
He said he doubts anyone is actually enforcing definitions and interpretations of domicile.
Georgetown County said it verifies that voters and candidates address are in the correct district but doesn’t check if residents live there. Instead, the office relies on the oath of the person.
This isn’t the first time a candidate in Pawleys Island has owned two properties.
Current councilman Guerry Green also owns property on the island that he rents along with a house right off it.
“Same situation. There wasn’t a word about it, there wasn’t a hymn about it,” Green said recalling when he ran two years ago.
Like Henry, Green said he’s considered Pawleys Island his home his whole life and that’s what should matter.
Another town council member, Ashley Carter, admitted he owns property off the island as well.
Green pointed to multiple other past council members who owned second homes, some even out of the county.
“I think it’s something that wasn’t paid a whole lot of attention to and basically it happened,” Braswell said of why this wasn’t a discussion last election.
In addition to the question of residency, 27 voters have registered to vote in the town in the last month, according to Georgetown County.
“Very true new residents have moved into homes that they have purchased. This is people switching their voter’s registration,” said Mayor Braswell.
Town council candidate Josh Ricker said he’s concerned by the increase, especially because many of the new voters appear to be part-time residents.
“I think if you get a little more philosophical about it, you know, at the end of the day, although it’s a small town, a lot of big decisions are made that impact us. If these decisions are the wrong ones or if they’re misled or misguided or what have you. You know, I can’t go anywhere. I’m here, I can’t leave. Whereas, people who aren’t residents are able to,” Ricker said.
The voters added in the last few months make up almost 16% of the total voters.
“At 30 votes on 100 voters, it’s almost impossible for a majority, a natural majority to actually win. So now it’s like, okay, in essence we’re handing over the keys and saying, ‘Have at it,’” Ricker said. “It’s frustrating. It’s uncomfortable.”
Not everyone sees the increase of potential part-time voters as a problem.
“These are people that have owned properties for 40, 50 years that might live in Georgetown or they might live in Atlanta or they might live in Murrells Inlet. But those people care as much about the Island as anybody else who lives here,” Henry said.
He believes even part-time residents have a right to be heard and vote.
Green said recent discussions on things like business taxes on rental homes and establishing public parking in the middle of the island have attributed to the increase in voters because homeowners want to voice their concerns.
Political professor and Coastal Carolina University Associate Provost Holley Tankersley said residency laws for votes and candidates is an issue that is faced across the county and is really a ‘do you belong in this community issue.’
“What makes you a resident. Is it the taxes? …Does it have something to do with have you made a home in that area? Do you volunteer in the area? Are you actively involved as a citizen?” She said. “These are really interesting questions because they define our idea not just of residency but really of citizenship, what does it mean to be a citizen of Pawleys Island, what does it mean to be a citizen of Myrtle Beach or of Conway and is it more than just what your address says?”
She said the challenge of answering that is something felt beyond Pawleys Island.
“I think will only continue to be controversial and to create that kind of tension as the Grand Strand continues to grow,” Tankersley said.
For Bowers, it comes down to expanding and preserving the right to vote.
“As long as that person has declared their intention to make it their domicile they are entitled to do that and I think the law in South Carolina is a good thing because I think it gives flexibility to citizens and voters and I’m a big fan of expanding the right to vote not restricting it and this law expands the right to vote,” he said.
Pawleys Island voters will have seven candidates to choose from on Tuesday to represent. For many, the result of Tuesday’s election goes beyond just the candidates.
“You got part-time residents that are registered, and you’ve got property owners, way more property owners that aren’t registered to vote here. They need a voice. They pay property taxes too,” Henry said. “So, I’m all about including everybody in this town and where we’re going in the future.”
Ricker said he understands every owner has a stake in the island but thinks that involvement can be separate from elections.
“You can become a committee member, you can attend all of our council meetings, certainly, but at the end of the day, you can’t run for office,” Ritter said. “It doesn’t mean you don’t have a voice. It just means, you know, we vote here, and you vote where you live.”