COLUMBIA - Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin warns another election in South Carolina could be thrown into chaos unless the Legislature passes a law dealing with the structure of county election offices.
His warning follows an opinion from the attorney general's office that a 2008 law on combined county election commissions and boards of voter registration is unconstitutional. If someone challenged that law in court, a verdict could jeopardize the elections, said Martin, R-Pickens.
"There would be nobody left to conduct elections at the local level," he said. "If a ruling came out a few weeks prior to the election, we'd really be in a predicament."
Martin doesn't directly know of any pending lawsuit, though he's heard rumors. And just two years after a lawsuit against a single candidate resulted in hundreds being kicked off primary ballots statewide, he's not willing to risk another election debacle.
"It's easy pickings," he said Friday about the possibility of a lawsuit. He urges his colleagues to pass his bill creating a statewide model for combined election and voter registration offices. His committee advanced it to the Senate floor on March 4.
But it's being blocked by Sen. Shane Martin, R-Pauline. His home county of Spartanburg is among eight counties that still have separate boards overseeing elections and voter registration, and he opposes forcing them to merge. He was on a business trip and could not be reached for comment Friday.
Larry Martin said the bill is his top priority for the coming weeks. If the Senate doesn't send it over to the House before May 1, its chance for passage is slim, as it will then face a required two-thirds vote just to be considered in that chamber.
He said he'll request a vote in the coming week to put the bill on special debate status in the Senate. Though he thinks it's best if all counties merge their offices, he thinks his staff has found a constitutional way to allow counties with separate boards to remain that way, to remove Shane Martin's opposition.
His measure, pre-filed in December, was a reaction to Judge Thomas Cooper's ruling months earlier that a 2011 law merging Richland County's election and voter registration boards violated the state constitution's prohibition against single-county legislation. Cooper said it represented a special exception for Richland County's governance model, apart from already existing state law.
But that law is also questionable, since it essentially wrapped into a single law counties' various governance models. It was legislators' 2008 attempt to make some single-county laws constitutional, a year after the attorney general's office concluded they weren't. Larry Martin sought a new opinion from Attorney General Alan Wilson after the other Sen. Martin put on the procedural block, using Senate rules.
Wilson's office confirmed Larry Martin's concerns.
"Act No. 312 is simply an amalgam of laws, each for a particular county. While the act addresses all 46 counties ... the effect is a different result in each county," Solicitor General Robert Cook wrote in the opinion dated March 12. "Even those counties which do have combined boards have different structures, compositions, etc., depending upon the individual county. Thus, while the act may appear general, it is far from uniform, but is instead a collective hodgepodge of local laws."
Such opinions carry no legal weight but are considered advisory.
If legislators don't respond, and a lawsuit does wreak havoc on the elections, it won't come as a surprise, Larry Martin said.
In 2012, 250 candidates were kicked off primary ballots after back-to-back decisions from the state Supreme Court over improperly filed financial forms.
Their ouster stemmed from confusion over a 2010 law requiring online filing, which failed to match up separate sections of state law. The Legislature approved a law fixing that last year.
"If we learned anything from the 2012 election debacle, we best learn to pay attention to a clear legal opinion and act on it," Martin said. "If they refuse, it's not without their eyes wide open. We can't wring our hands and say we didn't know."