COLUMBIA, S.C.—South Carolina lacks the authority to conduct a 2012 presidential primary, according to a lawsuit filed by four counties at the state Supreme Court.
The counties, in a case filed Monday, argue a 2008 primary law doesn't apply to running a 2012 primary. They argue the state Election Commission lacks the authority to conduct the primary and enter a contract with the state Republican Party to pay for it. And they say the commission can't require counties to cover expenses for the GOP primary.
The counties said they "are on the precipice of having to expend precious public funds to conduct what is wholly a private function on behalf of a private political party."
The lawsuit names the state Election Commission and the state Republican and Democratic parties.
State GOP Executive Director Matt Moore said the primary is part of the state's law. "It's clearly written in this year's budget law that the state should be involved with the 2012 primary so any claim otherwise is wrong," Moore said. He said the primary is an important public function, not a private operation.
The litigation was filed hours after a meeting between county voting officials and the state Election Commission and caps weeks of arguments about counties getting stuck with the tab for putting on the primary.
The Supreme Court has not decided to hear the case. If it did, and ruled in the counties' favor, legislators could be forced to come into session to pass a special primary law as deadlines loom for the Jan. 21 contest. 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.
In the lawsuit, officials from Beaufort, Chester, Greenville and Spartanburg counties say the primary will cost more than $2 million. The state Election Commission has about $680,000 to put into the primary and is billing the Republican party to pick up the rest. The GOP is raising money for the primary through candidate filing fees and fundraisers.
Last week, the GOP told counties it would cover expenses that the state does not usually reimburse. But GOP leaders said counties weren't satisfied that would cover all their costs. "We will pay for all legitimate expenses related to this primary," Moore said. But that doesn't include things like building maintenance or buying new computer gear, he said.
Despite the assurances, the counties say they were left paying bills in the 2008 primary.
For instance, Spartanburg County told the Supreme Court it had to cover $14,646 in unreimbursed costs. It says the full 2012 contest tab is $106,755. "The burden of the unreimbursed expenses will be placed on Spartanburg County and its taxpayers," said Henry Laye III, the county's elections director. On Monday, Laye referred questions about the suit to Columbia lawyer Joel Collins, who is representing the counties. Collins did not respond to interview requests Monday or Tuesday.
State Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire said the legal process should take its course and would not comment on the litigation. State Attorney General Alan Wilson will represent the commission in the lawsuit and said the commission has the authority to run the primary.
Questions about the primary have swirled for months.
Republican South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley vetoed plans in the budget to use taxpayer money for the primary. She said the primary would go forward "but it should not fall on the taxpayers to cover the expense." Legislators overrode the vetoes.
A bigger issue in the lawsuit is the authority to conduct the primary at all.
Budget writers nixed a measure that made it clear that the State Election Commission could run the presidential primary and collect money from the state Republican Party to run it. Wilson said in an opinion that the commission could conduct the primary in 2012 based on a law that specifically set up the 2008 primary. He also said the Election Commission could enter a contract with the state GOP to pick up the tab.
Wilson and Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, a Charleston Republican, said the budget law legislators approved allows for the primary.