A lesson to be learned from the dispute over the state Republican Party presidential primary is that if South Carolina is to be in charge of this exercise, then duties and responsibilities for state and local election officials and for the political parties need to be spelled out in law.
The legislature failed to do that for 2012 and relied on two weakly worded budget provisos to provide some funding. The provisos give the state Election Commission permission to use money from two accounts to help pay for the 2012 presidential preference primary. No specific dollar amounts are mentioned; no specific costs to be borne listed; no methods for reducing those costs laid out; no responsibilities for the parties cited.
In 2007, the state passed a law allowing the use of taxpayer money for the Republican and Democratic presidential primaries in 2008. That law specifically cites, the 2008 election cycle. Counties say they had to cover nearly $1 million in unreimbursed expenses.
At Monday's hearing before the state Supreme Court in a lawsuit brought by Beaufort and three other counties, Justice Don Beatty rightly expressed skepticism that the budget provisos amended the existing law.
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"That bridge is a little too thin for me to cross on," Beatty said.
The counties lost ground on their position that the primaries are a private affair. Chief Justice Jean Toal reminded all of the state's history of blocking public access to elections.
"The notion that access can be denied because of some breakdown in the system -- including that counties don't want to pay for it -- that strikes me as completely contrary to what's been said in the decisions of the '40s regarding voter access," Toal said.
Toal said primaries require cooperation between counties and the election commission and it was unrealistic to expect the state and the Republican Party to hold the Jan. 21 primary without the help of the counties.
This argument is about money and lawmakers' failing to do their job. (Gov. Nikki Haley vetoed the budget provisos, but lawmakers overturned her veto.)
They failed to provide unambiguous authority for state and local officials to conduct the primary; they failed to assess the costs and provide funding for it; they failed to lay out the party's responsibilities in paying for it.
The counties were left with a promise from the party and state election officials to pay "reasonable" expenses, but no clear guidance on what those two entities would deem "reasonable."
Lawmakers could and should do better, no matter how the Supreme Court rules in this particular legal challenge, or they should leave presidential primaries to the parties as they did in years past.