Beaufort News

Beaufort County joins lawsuit challenging local role in GOP primary

COLUMBIA -- Four S.C. counties, including Beaufort County, have filed a lawsuit challenging their role in the state's "first in the South" Republican presidential primary.

The lawsuit, filed in the S.C. Supreme Court, contends the S.C. Election Commission cannot force local governments to spend taxpayer money on a private election -- even if that election has the importance of the state's primary.

In 2007, state legislators passed a law that, for the first time, used public money to pay for both the Democratic and Republican presidential primaries in 2008. But county governments say they were left covering much of the expense.

According to the lawsuit, counties were not reimbursed for more than $960,000 of expenses related to the two primaries.

The amount Beaufort County taxpayers shouldered that year has been revised upward to $204,585, said county elections executive director Scott Marshall.

In an affidavit attached to the lawsuit, Marshall estimates conducting next year's GOP primary will cost $120,332. He argues some expenses will not be reimbursed under the state's current policy, meaning the county must spend its own money to benefit "a private political organization."

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

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.

    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.

    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.

    The lawsuit states counties need at least two months notice to mobilize poll workers and prepare voting machines for the GOP's Jan. 21 primary.

    If the court decides against the suit, Marshall said Beaufort County officials will do whatever it takes to comply with the law. But doing so could be a challenge if the court doesn't rule until the end of November, near that 60-day deadline.

    "That's cutting it pretty close," Marshall said.

    Reporter Kyle Peterson contributed to this story