Supreme Court can help sort out primary issues

The state Supreme Court's decision to hear legal questions raised by four counties about the Republican Party presidential preference primary is welcome news.

And the court is moving quickly, ordering the counties, which include Beaufort County, to submit papers by Wednesday. No hearing date has been announced.

We need clear direction from the state's high court about whether the state Election Commission has the authority to direct the counties to hold the partisan primary. Some legal insight on paying for a private party nominating process would be welcome, too.

The state and counties face fast-approaching deadlines to set ballots and send out absentee ballots for the Jan. 21 GOP primary. The state has to have names to put on the ballot by Nov. 1, and it has to have overseas absentee ballots in the mail by Dec. 7, The Associated Press reports.

If the court sides with the counties, the legislature could be forced into session to pass a special primary law.

There's enough ambiguity in how lawmakers went about dealing with the 2012 primary that the court's input is needed.

In this year's budget, lawmakers authorized the commission to use money in two different accounts to pay for statewide primaries and the 2012 presidential primary. The budget provisions say the commission "may" use the money to conduct 2012 presidential preference primaries and other primary elections.

A 2007 law authorizing the commission to conduct presidential primaries specifically cites the 2008 election cycle.

Attorney General Alan Wilson maintains that the 2007 law, as well as the budget provisions, gives the commission the authority to conduct the 2012 presidential primary.

The counties make a distinction between the local and statewide primaries held in June in a general election year. Those primaries result in winners' names on the ballot. In their lawsuit, the counties point to the state Republican Party's bylaws and the fact that the primary will not determine who will be the GOP nominee on the South Carolina ballot, calling it a "political beauty pageant."

The counties also worry about getting reimbursed by the state for the costs incurred and rightfully so. Beaufort County was left to pay more than $200,000 in expenses for the Democratic and Republican primaries in 2008.

State and party officials have estimated that the cost for the 2012 GOP primary will be $1.3 million to $1.5 million, but county officials say it could be as much as $2.5 million.

A promise to reimburse them for all "legitimate" expenses didn't stop the lawsuit, which was filed a few hours after a meeting Monday between county and state election officials.

We look forward to the state high court's answers to the questions raised.