State Sued over Funding of Presidential Primary

(Columbia, SC) Four S.C. counties have filed a lawsuit challenging the state’s high-profile “first in the South” Republican presidential primary.

In a lawsuit filed in the S.C. Supreme Court, the counties contend S.C. lawmakers cannot force local governments to spend taxpayer money on a private election – even if that election has the importance of the state’s primary.

If successful, the lawsuit would make it more difficult for state Republicans to hold their primary on Jan. 21, forcing the GOP to pay for it with private money.

The suit also would override state lawmakers, who this year overrode Gov. Nikki Haley’s veto to extend a 2008 law to spend public money for the 2012 primary.

Chad Connelly, chairman of the S.C. Republican Party, called the lawsuit “frivolous,” saying “state law is very clear that the state should oversee and run presidential primaries.” Matt Moore, the party’s executive director, added that “in no way is this primary in jeopardy” because of the lawsuit.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the county election commissions in Beaufort, Chester, Greenville and Spartanburg counties, has two main points:

State lawmakers did not set aside enough money to cover the cost of the primaries, forcing county election commissions to use local tax dollars to cover the shortfall. County officials previously have said they do not think it appropriate to spend a county’s tax money on a non-binding primary while that county is having to cut expenses elsewhere, including county workers, due to the economic downturn.

The State Election Commission does not have the authority to run a presidential primary unless state lawmakers say it is OK, either by passing a law or inserting a proviso into the state budget. A law passed to authorize the 2008 primaries makes no mention of the 2012 primaries, therefore it is not applicable, the counties contend.
Both parties held primaries in 2008. However, Democrats will not hold a primary in 2012; first-term President Barack Obama is unopposed in his party.

“We want to make sure all expenses are covered, and that no county has to pay a dime to conduct a Republican presidential preference primary or a Democratic presidential preference primary,” said Conway Belangia, director of the Greenville County Election Commission. “State law does not provide for that, in our opinion.”

But state Attorney General Alan Wilson, whose office is responsible for defending the State Election Commission in court, said the General Assembly approved two budget provisos in June that specifically gave the Election Commission authority to run the 2012 primary and use state money to pay for it.

Greenville’s Belangia and Joel Collins, an attorney with the Columbia law firm of Collins & Lacy, which is representing the counties, declined to comment on the budget provisos.

Wilson, a Republican, says he personally is against using public money to pay for primaries. But he said his office will defend the Election Commission. “I have to enforce and defend a law that is constitutional,” he said. “My hands are tied.”

As for how much money counties should be reimbursed for holding the primary, Wilson said that is a private issue between the counties and the state Republican Party.

From 1980 until 2000, the GOP paid for and ran the state’s presidential primary, using paper ballots. However, the controversial 2000 presidential election, where paper ballots were disputed in Florida and a Supreme Court decision was required to determine a winner, effectively put an end to paper ballots.

In 2008, state lawmakers passed a law that, for the first time, used public money to pay for both the Democratic and Republican presidential primaries. But county governments say they were left covering much of the expense for those elections. According to the lawsuit, S.C. counties were not reimbursed for $966,360 in their 2008 expenses.

However, a State Election Commission official disputed that.

Marci Andino, director of the State Election Commission, said, “The majority of counties submitted reimbursements for an amount equal to or less than the budget (they were given to spend in 2008),” according to a court document.

State lawmakers have set aside $680,000 for the 2012 primary, according to court documents. The State Election Commission and the state Republican Party have told counties they will be reimbursed for all “legitimate expenses,” with the GOP saying it would pay costs above the state’s $680,000. But the counties, Election Commission and GOP officials disagree over what expenses are legitimate.

Specifically, the counties argue the $60 a day that each poll worker would be paid does not cover the federal minimum wage, when overtime is included, “which it almost certainly will be,” according to court documents. County officials say not paying the minimum wage could expose them to lawsuits.

Also, the state will not reimburse counties for using public buildings as polling places. The GOP primary is set for a Saturday, when many polling sites – such as schools – normally are closed. The counties contend the “marginal cost of heating and lighting the buildings, when they would not normally be used, is a real cost that will have to be shouldered by the county taxpayers.”

The counties have asked the Supreme Court to issue a ruling by the end of November.

The Supreme Court is not required to hear the case. (The State)