Editorial: SC’s counties should determine level of funding for elections offices

May 4, 2014 

— WITH A JUDGE having struck down Richland County’s single-county law that merged the election and voter registration boards, County Council has not only the right but the responsibility to determine the level at which to fund the newly separated offices.

That’s exactly what at least one council member — Bill Malinowski — wants to do. He has proposed that the council set the budget in the voter registration office at its 2011 funding level. We aren’t clear why Mr. Malinowski singles out voter registration and not the elections office as well or how he arrived at that funding level, but he is on the right track.

County Council should make an independent assessment of both offices to determine funding needs. This isn’t simply about whether the level at which the county was forced to fund the joint office under the unconstitutional law county legislators passed in 2011 was excessive. It’s about the duly elected County Council being able to make spending decisions in the interest of voters who elected them.

The 2011 measure merging the offices required Richland to provide a budget at least equal to the average of the annual budgets for the Charleston and Greenville county boards of election and voter registration. Prior to the merger, the separate elections and voter registration offices had a combined budget of just less than $800,000. Once the new law was passed, County Council was forced to provide a budget of $1.17 million — an increase of nearly $400,000.

In 2012, the council granted the office $1.23 million — an amount above what the law required — after Lillian McBride, director of the combined office at the time, requested additional money to transform two part-time positions into full-time slots.

Little did the council know that what was to follow was the worst debacle in modern S.C. election history and that the mess would require even more of taxpayers. Following the botched 2012 election, the office was the target of protests and lawsuits.

Instead of tapping into the generous budget already afforded them, as they should have, election officials convinced County Council to pay more than $100,000 in legal bills. That included $9,350 for the attorney of Ms. McBride, who managed the fiasco and should have paid for her own lawyer.

Ms. McBride’s attorney helped negotiate against the elections office to secure a new county job for her. With the judge’s order returning voter registration and elections to their former state, Ms. McBride is now director of voter registration, the position she held prior to being director over all elections-related functions.

With lawmakers considering changes to the election system, Richland’s offices could be combined again. A Senate-passed plan would combine the boards under a uniform standard. Meanwhile, the key element of a House-passed plan would allow the state to intervene when those combined boards fail to do their jobs. That legislation still would require counties, instead of the state, to fund the offices, but it would allow the county councils, who know the overall needs of their communities and what they can afford, to determine how much to fund them.

That’s officially the law in Richland County today, so whether the much-needed legislation passes or not, Richland officials need to move forward with a careful analysis of what is needed, rather than continuing to pay what an unconstitutional law forced them to.

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