Counties, state require clear guidance on primary

State election and Republican Party officials will have to do better than pledge to reimburse "legitimate" expenses to assuage county officials' concerns about conducting the party's presidential primary.

And the promise to cover county costs doesn't address the fundamental question: Is there legal authority for the state's staging the presidential primary?

Attorney General Alan Wilson has said yes in an advisory opinion, but he had to do some legal tap-dancing to get there, including looking to the title caption on the 2007 bill that authorized conducting the 2008 presidential primaries and ignoring the language in the bill that specified the 2008 election cycle, the first time the state ever conducted presidential primaries.

Beaufort County elections executive director Scott Marshall, called Tuesday's announcement about reimbursing expenses "a step in the right direction.

"But we're still being asked to run the primary in absence of a legal requirement," he said.

Two things should happen before counties drop their objections:

  • A court decision on whether Wilson is right in his interpretation of the 2007 law and his conclusion that it authorizes conducting and paying for the 2012 presidential primary.
  • A clear understanding and agreement on county expenses to be reimbursed.
  • Matt Moore, executive director of the Republican Party, told The Greenville News last week that the parties can pay the costs as long as the state runs the primaries.

    "Whatever they invoice us for, we're happy to pay it," Moore said.

    But apparently within limits. Chris Whitmire, spokesman for the state Election Commission, said, "We're going to have to provide some guidelines. The party's not going to agree to a blank check."

    The commission expects to base those guidelines on information about county expenses from the 2008 presidential primaries and expected costs for the 2012 primary.

    Spartanburg County Council officials, who along with Greenville County officials, have voted to file a lawsuit over the matter, said they would go ahead with legal action given the ambiguity of the promise to date.

    The GOP and the Election Commission say the primary will cost between $1.3 million and $1.5 million; two state budget provisions make money available for a presidential primary. That totaled $1.1 million at the end of the fiscal year, state Sen. Tom Davis reports, up from the estimated $680,000 when the budget was passed.

    But some officials say the cost could run as high as $2.5 million when local expenses are included.

    Marshall has said Beaufort County had to absorb $154,138 of the $230,247 in expenses for the 2008 Democratic and Republican primaries.

    The Democratic Party is not expected to hold a primary in 2012, but state party officials recognize that might not be the case in the future.

    State Democratic Party Chairman Dick Hartpootlian says the state should pay for presidential primaries. They are high profile and bring money into the state.

    Even if that's true, we have enough of a legal muddle -- the attorney general's opinion notwithstanding -- that clarity is called for.

    If a court -- most likely the state Supreme Court -- rules the law isn't there to support the state's staging the presidential primary or spending public money for it, the state Republican Party would have to find the money or manpower or both to do it unless lawmakers change the law.

    Lawmakers would have to move relatively quickly. The state GOP has moved its presidential primary date to Jan. 21 to get ahead of Florida's Jan. 31 primary. The 2012 legislative session starts Jan. 10, but the legislature could be called back in for a budget matter such as this under its adjournment rules.

    Whatever happens this election cycle, lawmakers should clear up any ambiguities about legal authority and who pays for presidential primaries; 2016 will be here before we know it.