Judge: Merger of Richland County election offices unconstitutional

dhinshaw@thestate.comAugust 30, 2013 

TIM DOMINICK — tdominick@thestate.com Buy Photo

A SC circuit court judge issued a blunt ruling that the 2011 merger of Richland County’s elections and voter registration offices violates the state constitution.

“The General Assembly has returned to its unconstitutional practice of enacting special and single county legislation,” Judge Thomas Cooper wrote in an order made public Thursday.

“The Supreme Court has repeatedly found such actions of the General Assembly unconstitutional.”

Observers said his ruling voids the 2011 law that reorganized separate county offices and ramped up spending in the year leading up to the November 2012 election, a presidential vote that turned out to be one of the biggest disasters in state history.

The case was brought by a group called the S.C. Public Interest Foundation and taxpayer Rusty DePass, a pollworker active in Richland County Republican politics and civic life.

DePass’ lawyer, Jim Carpenter of Greenville, said the Richland County elections office must return to functioning separately from its voter registration office. The two must be overseen by separate boards appointed by the governor, not local legislators.

“The upholding of the Constitution – that’s no small thing,” Carpenter said.

The 10-page ruling, dated Aug. 26, notes that the attorney general’s office admitted that the law merging the two county offices may have violated the constitution, and that the state filed no paperwork to oppose the judge’s decision to rule without a trial.

Neither Richland County nor the board of elections and voter registration sought to participate in the case.

Defendants are the state of South Carolina as well as Richland County senators John Courson, Darrell Jackson, Joel Lourie and John Scott. Efforts to reach each were unsuccessful Friday.

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