EXCLUSIVE: Delegation to seek stay so Columbia Nov. 5 elections can be held smoothly

jmonk@thestate.comSeptember 10, 2013 

TIM DOMINICK — tdominick@thestate.com Buy Photo

— The Nov. 5 Columbia City Council and mayor elections, and a countywide library bond referendum, may be able to be carried out without fear of a legal disruption.

Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, disclosed Tuesday that he and three fellow Richland County senators have filed a request with Circuit Judge G. Thomas Cooper to grant what amounts to a stay – a temporary halting – of the effect of the implementation of Cooper’s Aug. 26 order.

Cooper ruled that the 2011 merger of Richland County’s elections and voter registration offices, approved by the General Assembly, violates the state constitution. Such a ruling raised the possibility that the Nov. 5 election was going to be overseen by unconstitutional agencies – and as such open to legal challenge.

The request says that a stay until Jan. 1 by Cooper would “alleviate any confusion over which entity or entities have the authority to conduct” the Nov. 5 election, Courson’s request says.

“We just thought it would be prudent to err on the side of caution,” Courson said Tuesday, although he said senators believed there was only a “minuscule, outside risk” that the upcoming election would have been disrupted.

Courson, the Senate president pro tem, also said he intends to pre-file a bill in December for the 2014 General Assembly session that would allow counties, rather than legislative delegations, to assume all county elections operations.

In some three dozen of the state’s 46 counties, the legislative delegation of senators and state representatives controls the elections and voter registration offices, while the county governments fund their operations.

The situation is a relic of bygone days when the Legislature controlled nearly all local affairs. It has continued in the present because state lawmakers still like to use their influence to oversee election office hiring and polling place operations, while forcing county governments to pay for the local agencies.

That system has been in effect in Richland County for years. In 2011, the delegation divided the elections office into an elections office and a board of voter registration and placed Lillian McBride, a longtime voter registration official, in charge of the office with an $89,000 salary – the highest salary in the state for a local elections official. McBride then oversaw the disastrous November election last year, in which untold numbers of people didn’t get to vote because they didn’t or couldn’t wait in lines caused by a dramatic shortage of machines.

Courson said his legislation would have statewide application and make it possible for county governments to turn all authority over the county elections office and the board of voter registration over to county council.

“Both entities – the legislative delegation and the county council – would have to agree for it to happen,” Courson said.

“If county council is providing funding for an entity, they should have the governing authority,” Courson said. “I’ve advocated this for years.”

In his Aug. 26 order, Cooper used blunt language to rule that the Richland County legislative delegation had no authority to tamper with local elections operations via legislation targeting only one county.

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

The lawsuit in which Cooper ruled was brought by a group called the S.C. Public Interest Foundation and taxpayer Rusty DePass, a poll worker active in Richland County Republican politics and civic life.

“All we are trying to do is get these people to follow the constitution,” DePass said Tuesday. “The November election will not be affected.”

Jim Carpenter, the Greenville-based lawyer who filed the lawsuit for DePass and the foundation, said Tuesday his clients “have no intent to disrupt the Nov. 5 election.”

He declined to discuss in detail the response he is preparing to file answering Courson’s request but said the judge made it clear that Richland County’s elections operations should revert immediately to the way they were before the 2011 law combing the operations into one office.

“You should go back to the way things were. The law is unconstitutional. The court struck it down,” Carpenter said.

Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.

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