Beaufort County election officials are right to question public funding of presidential party primaries.
Selecting a presidential nominee is a party function that until 2008 was an expense borne by the parties. And with tight budgets, every expenditure counts.
But they are fighting an uphill battle. The state has committed $680,000 to the expected $1.3 million cost for a Republican Party primary in February. The party has pledged to raise the rest. Lawmakers overturned Gov. Nikki Haley's veto of the bill.
If legislative intent is the question here, lawmakers clearly intend for the state to conduct and help pay for the GOP primary in 2012, and one would assume a Democratic primary should there be a need for one.
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Attorney General Alan Wilson also issued an opinion in June that the legislature in 2007, despite specific language in the bill to the contrary, did not intend to put a time limit on the state's conducting party primaries. He points to the bill's title, which includes no time limit or date, and sets aside the phrase "for the 2008 election cycle" included twice in the 2007 law.
Wilson also contends that since the law was made part of the S.C. Code of Laws, it is permanent law despite that phrase.
If the legislature wanted to make this move permanent, it certainly could have done a better job in writing the bill. But it also wouldn't be the first time that lawmakers passed a law that didn't accurately reflect what they set out to do.
County officials rightly contend the legislature could have fixed the law to be clear about the state's authority to run presidential primaries in 2012 and beyond, and it should have done so.
Clarity could have been achieved with a bill introduced in April by state Sen. Vince Sheheen. The measure struck the phrase "for the 2008 election cycle" from the law. But the bill, which also included provisions to set up a single date for party primaries, didn't get out of committee.
Lawmakers still can correct the law when they reconvene in January. Why rely on the legal gymnastics Wilson had to employ to make this work?
There is something to be said for people who know how to run an election being in charge of such an important part of the process. But we would vote that the state take on the job only if the parties bear the cost. Haley maintained in her veto message that party primaries are a private function that should not be paid for with the public's money.
At the very least, if lawmakers want state and local election officials to do this job, it should fully reimburse counties. After all, it's a safe bet most lawmakers don't like unfunded mandates, and this certainly fits that description.