COLUMBIA - Both the House and Senate have passed a bill designed to prevent a lawsuit from throwing South Carolina's elections into chaos again.
But their versions differ. A six-member panel appointed this week will try to reach a compromise on the legislation, which is aimed at creating a statewide model for county election boards.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin has urged his colleagues to act quickly, noting a verdict on a lawsuit filed in March could jeopardize the June primaries. The South Carolina Public Interest Foundation has asked a judge to throw out a 2008 state law on how county election offices are constructed.
Martin had warned such a lawsuit was likely, citing advice from the attorney general's office that the law is unconstitutional. If a court affirms the top prosecutor's opinion, there could be no one left locally to conduct elections, he said. Lawmakers also fear the potential of a verdict overturning upcoming elections.
Legislators don't want to take that chance two years after a lawsuit against a single candidate resulted in about 250 people being kicked off primary ballots statewide.
"The thought of it is too much to process after the 2012 election fiasco," said Rep. Alan Clemmons, R-Myrtle Beach, chairman of the House Judiciary's election law subcommittee. "After that statewide embarrassment, I would hope that the General Assembly will see the necessity in preventing a chapter two of that unfortunate novel, and that we close the book on the election problems of the last round."
The House version of the fix, passed 81-32 last month, allows counties to continue separating the oversight of elections and voter registration. Eight of the state's 46 counties still have separate boards. Only two of those eight - Cherokee and Williamsburg - separate all operations, with different directors and office space, according to the state Election Commission.
The Senate version, approved 36-1 and returned Tuesday to the House, forces a merger. It lays out a single governance structure for the counties to follow.
Martin, R-Pickens, said he doesn't think a court will uphold giving counties an option.
"You just can't do that anymore in treating one county differently," he said. "It just makes sense to merge all the boards in one unified way."
Clemmons, a member of the compromise panel, agrees the Senate bill offers the cleanest way to resolve the issue. He even suggested that solution, he said, but the House didn't accept it. Still, he believes the House version also passes constitutional muster.
Another difference in the House version is that it gives the state Election Commission oversight of county election offices and requires audits to ensure they're following election law. Martin said he likes that provision.
The bill is a reaction to Judge Thomas Cooper's ruling last year 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's the law being challenged, 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. Martin sought a new opinion from Attorney General Alan Wilson after a senator blocked debate on his bill.
While the 2008 law addresses all 46 counties "the effect is a different result in each county," Solicitor General Robert Cook wrote in March 12 opinion. "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."
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