Some S.C. counties are considering possible legal action against the state Election Commission for expecting them to foot part of the bill associated with conducting the 2012 Republican presidential primary.
Spartanburg County Council will meet Friday to consider a potential lawsuit, and neighboring Greenville County's director of elections confirmed his county is weighing joining the action against the state for making counties use their own funds to hold what they consider to be an election that isn't mandated by the state.
A Republican presidential primary up until 2008 had been funded and conducted by the party and its associated volunteers, according to Conway Belangia, director of elections for Greenville County. In 2008, the state general assembly made that year's primary a state-mandated event.
This year, the S.C. GOP is currently in contract negotiations with the Election Commission to put on the primary, which is expected to be held in February or possibly earlier in 2012, and could cost up to $1.5 million.
Earlier this year, the state legislators allotted $680,000 toward funding the primary, overriding Gov. Nikki Haley's veto that sought to eliminate state funding for presidential primaries. The remaining costs would then have to be made up by the SCGOP, which receives filing fees from each of the candidates. Still, counties are likely to incur their own expenses for manning the polls.
"SCARE (South Carolina Association of Registration and Election Officials) requested to be involved in the negotiations at that point," Belangia said. "We were told 'no.' That really raised eyebrows and concerns."
Now, some argue, the individual counties may have to contribute their own tax dollars toward funding an event which they've had no hand in negotiating the terms.
"We're not involved in the contract process," Belangia said. "We want to make sure the various counties do not have an expense in conducting a presidential preference primary that is not mandated by the state."
Belangia said when the Election Commission, after a second request, denied the South Carolina Association of Counties (SCARE's parent organization) having a part in negotiations, it was deemed necessary to take certain steps to be sure the counties' interests were being protected.
The S.C. Attorney General's Office has stated that this year's GOP presidential primary is in fact a state-mandated election, although the 2008 decision by the General Assembly mentioned it as the last election as being state-mandated.
"The Attorney General has said basically that, 'Well, the General Assembly didn't mean 2008 only, and it should have said 2008 and hereafter,' " Belangia said.
"If that were true, they sure didn't provide the funds for it."
Belangia said Greenville County never budgeted to use its own funds toward any expenses incurred due to the February primary. Each county stands to use tens of thousands of dollars of its own money just for overtime salary.
Last election, Belangia said, Greenville County used more than $20,000 in salary for a similar event.
Belangia's counterpart in Spartanburg County, Henry Laye, estimated that the SCGOP's collection of candidate filing fees, plus the $680,000 allotment would still leave at least a $250,000 tab to be picked up by the counties statewide.
Laye said his biggest concern is there's not enough money to cover the estimated costs the Election Commission has projected.
"We are not opposed to conducting the presidential preference primary," Laye said. "We simply want to make sure we're reimbursed for the full costs of conducting that election, which is a non-binding election, if you will."
Laye said during the 2008 primaries, some counties "got hung out to dry with some taxpayer dollars" used to pay for the primaries and he doesn't want to see that happen this time.
Matt Moore, executive director of the SCGOP, said that the GOP understood the counties' anxiety, but also recognized that the law of the land considers the primary to be a state-mandated event.
"The Republican Party recognizes the concerns counties have about using their tax dollars on the primary, but the legislature and attorney general have spoken," Moore said. "We consider this to be a matter between state commission and the counties — it has nothing to do with us."
Officials with several of the state's other large counties have also been watching the inevitability of primary-related county expenses closely.
Lillian A. McBride, executive director of the Richland County Elections and Voter Registration Board, said the board members would discuss funding for the statewide primary at their meeting on Tuesday.
McBride, who was appointed in July, said she did not know of any past problems involving Richland County funding of state elections.
Dean Crepes, director of the Lexington County Commission of Registration and Elections, said he would wait and see exactly what the state was asking for before deciding on what action to take.
“I basically know that the elections are not fully paid for and we do have a little bit of money, but not much, to pay for [the presidential primary],” Crepes said. “We may not have to put too much into it.”
Crepes said he did not have details on which county costs the state planned to reimburse and thus had not discussed the issue with his committee members.
“I’m going to sit and watch and see what they’re doing and we’ll go from there,” Crepes said.
Joe Debney, the executive director of Charleston County Elections and Voter Registration, says the county budgeted for a local cost in 2012, after it was required four years ago.
"We just assumed we were going to be required to do it again," he said.
What concerns Debney is the cost of two different presidential primaries. If the Democrats hold a primary, it is scheduled for Feb. 28. With GOP primaries in other states already moving to the same date, it's highly likely that S.C. GOP leaders will be holding a Republican Primary in the Palmetto State earlier.
Debney said different dates cause confusion for South Carolina voters, who aren't required to register with a party to vote in a primary. And it will increase the cost associated with each primary.
"We're not in panic mode, but we're concerned," Debney said.
Chris Whitmire, director of public information for the state Election Commission, said the costs associated with the presidential primary would be the same as any other election.
“The state reimburses the counties for many of their expenses that they have for conducting any statewide election,” Whitmire said. “But there are some parts that we don’t reimburse for, so the county may incur costs [for those].”
Whitmire said in the eyes of the Election Commission, holding the primary was a requirement, not an option.
“Our point of view on the president preference primaries is that the law requires us to conduct them,” Whitmire said. “It’s not the state Election Commission that is requiring the counties to do anything, it’s just the law requires it."
Whitmire said if counties feel it's an unfunded mandate, then the mandate wouldn't come from the Election Commission.
At this time, Whitmire said it was unlikely that the Democrats would hold their own primary, adding that adjusting the date of the primary to assure South Carolina’s first-in-the-South status shouldn’t increase the cost, and that counties should have been aware of the potential costs of the primary because of discussion in the legislature.
“It was talked about in this past session, bills were introduced dealing with it, so it was a topic of conversation about how these would be paid for,” Whitmire said. "It's not a new issue."