Saturday’s editorial, provided by Cindi Scoppe at The State:
I’ve never liked the idea of taxpayers picking up the tab for a partisan beauty contest that won’t actually nominate anyone and whose timing and cost the state has no control over. Unlike state and local primaries, the purpose of South Carolina’s presidential primaries is to give direction to delegates to the parties’ national conventions – direction that those delegates are free to ignore.
The idea is even less appealing since the state Republican Party put its delegates in jeopardy by defying Republican National Committee rules and moving the primary to Jan. 21. Although that was done to keep our state’s first-in-the-South status after Florida defied those same rules, it still underscores the wide gulf between the primaries that actually decide which candidates’ names go on the fall ballots and these presidential “preference” primaries.
And yet, S.C. voters understandably believe that this beauty contest is a real election. And it is the closest they get to having any say in whose name will be on the ballot a year from now.
That’s why our editorial board urged the legislature four years ago to put the State Election Commission in charge of running presidential preference primaries: In a free society, few things are more important than public ownership and confidence in our election system and our government. When independents and Democrats feel uncomfortable participating in an election because it’s run by Republicans – or when independents and Republicans feel uncomfortable participating in an election because it’s run by Democrats – that undermines the sense of ownership we must have in our representative democracy.
The matter has taken on urgency as the state Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments on Monday in a lawsuit filed by Beaufort, Chester, Greenville and Spartanburg counties, contending that there is no authority even for the state to conduct the contest, much less for them to have to help pay for it. The parties argue that the State Election Commission didn’t cover anywhere near their full costs for running the 2008 presidential primaries, and with the legislature skimping on funding for the January contest – it provided less than half of the $1.5 million the commission says it needs, depending on the party to come up with the rest – they doubt they’ll be fully reimbursed this time around.
It’s not clear why the court agreed to hear the case, although it’s quite clear that the legislature did a shoddy job of writing the law.
From a policy perspective, the law failed to put the state in charge: The parties got to decide whether they even wanted the state to run the contests and were free to drive up the state’s costs by picking separate dates, and neither the state nor the parties could take reasonable steps to contain costs in other ways.
What’s legally problematic is that the law specifically refers to the 2008 primaries, which has raised questions as to whether the Election Commission can conduct the 2012 primary. Although legislators added language to this year’s budget authorizing the commission to spend money on the 2012 primary, they refused to remove the “2008” qualifier from the statute. Attorney General Alan Wilson issued a well-reasoned opinion that the law authorizes the state to run all presidential preference primaries, regardless of the year, but that’s just an opinion, and it doesn’t address the more interesting claim in the lawsuit: that nothing in the law compels the counties to help pay for those contests.
Even if the counties don’t have a legitimate legal point, they have a legitimate policy point.
It makes sense for counties to help pay for our general elections and state primaries, because those elections include county races. Not so with the special presidential quasi-primaries. If it’s the government’s responsibility to run those primaries – and it is – then it’s the responsibility of the state government, not county governments. Sticking the counties with even a small part of the bill is yet another unfunded state mandate to the counties – which have had their ability to raise taxes to cover their own expenses severely constrained by that same state government.
The obvious way to fix these problems long-term is for the legislature to fix the law. Although regular primaries are clearly governmental functions, it’s tougher to make the same argument over preference primaries; the legislature should eliminate that distinction by requiring that convention delegates cast their ballots according to the results of these contests. Beyond that, it should make it clear that the state will run presidential primaries, whatever the year, spell out what portion (if any) of the funding will be covered by the taxpayers, require the political parties to pick up the rest of the tab and authorize cost-saving measures, from consolidating precincts when only one party holds a primary and requiring that both parties hold their primaries on the same day to saving money elsewhere by consolidating local elections on a single day.
The counties have offered to drop the lawsuit in return for the Republican Party putting $2.5 million in escrow to cover their costs. That seems excessive, but knowing what they want, there’s now room to haggle over the price. And that’s what needs to happen. The Election Commission, legislative leaders, Gov. Nikki Haley, the state Republican Party and the counties need to act in good faith to come up with a way to determine the counties’ actual costs – and then the GOP needs to agree to pay them.