COLUMBIA -- Chief Justice Jean Toal on Monday suggested that the way South Carolina's GOP presidential primary is paid for could be as fundamental as protecting access to the ballot box for all voters.
Toal raised the matter as justices questioned lawyers on each side of the case that will decide whether counties are forced to pick up part of a tab for the 2012 Republican presidential primary.
The four counties that brought suit -- Beaufort, Chester, Greenville and Spartanburg -- argue that local taxpayers should not be required to pay for a primary that is a glorified straw poll, or beauty contest, and not essential to nominating a GOP candidate, their lawyer Joel Collins of Columbia said.
If the justices agree that the Legislature did not require the counties to pay for the primary, then the Republican Party would have to raise the cash.
A ruling is expected as early as next week.
The GOP primary is scheduled for Jan. 21.
Democrats and Republicans, along with state Senate lawyers, teamed up to convince the high court to require public dollars to be used for the primary. They argued that the Legislature directed such a state law and budget provisions, authorizing the state Election Commission to spend roughly $680,000 on the contest.
Toal raised questions about what consequences a party-funded primary could have on access. She cited case law from the 1940s that says primaries are essential to the right to vote.
Collins argued that the primaries were funded privately every year until the 2008 presidential campaign cycle.
The Election Commission estimates that the cost would be between $1.3 million and $1.5 million. Collins said that the minimum to hire poll workers is about that much. He estimated the cost would be about $1 million more.
"Our county governments, supported by the taxpaying citizens of those counties, have a lot of financial problems," Collins said. "To (require) us to cough up approximately $2.5 million is simply unfair and unreasonable."
In all, a dozen other counties, including Berkeley, support the suit.
State GOP Party Chairman Chad Connelly suggested that the counties were using the primary as an opportunity to generate cash to offset other expenses.
"We think the Legislature was clear," he said. "We think it's covered in the budget. ... What are counties trying to get over on the Election Commission?"
Justice Donald Beatty expressed concern over the role left up to the court. He said the court is being asked to do something the Legislature refused to do and act as if it is a super-Legislature.
Reach Yvonne Wenger at 803-926-7855.