May 4, 2014

Elections bill: A ‘get it done’ attitude heading into conference committee

A six-man legislative committee must work through competing versions of a bill designed to protect county election boards statewide from a legal challenge.

A six-man legislative committee must work through competing versions of a bill designed to protect county election boards statewide from a legal challenge.

Work could start this week on a final version of the measure, which sets out how the state’s 46 election boards are appointed. A key sticking point: Whether every county must be set up the same.

Some lawmakers feel a sense of urgency, with the June primary election about a month away and a lawsuit looming that could complicate things.

Members of the conference committee, which meets Thursday, agree passage of a bill is important this year, after a court ruling in Richland County foreshadowed problems with the patchwork of laws going back to the early 1970s establishing election boards across the state.

And since all but eight counties have merged their elections and voter registration boards, the momentum is in that direction. But there are other provisions, most notably one that gives the state Election Commission authority to step in if a county isn’t following election laws.

State Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, who sits on the committee, said separate elections and voter registration boards work well in his home county.

Cherokee County is one of just two in the state where election-related operations are completely separate, according to the state Election Commission. The other is Williamsburg County.

Peeler said he wants to make sure elections in Cherokee County aren’t thrown into chaos by a forced merger “right here on the eve of a major primary.” He doesn’t relish pushing out the chairman of the elections board or the voter-registration board, either.

But Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston and a lawyer, said uniformity is “the best and safest approach” to avoid litigation. And parochial concerns pale in comparison to “the potential damage to the Democratic process if we had multiple county boards ... determined to be unconstitutional.”

The House version of the bill, passed 81-32 last month, would allow counties to determine whether they want to merge the two functions.

The Senate version, passed 36-1 last week, would force the merger. It lays out a single structure for all counties to follow.

Joining Campsen and Peeler on the conference committee are Sen. John Scott, D-Richland; and, in the House, Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Richland, Rep. Alan Clemmons, R-Horry, and Rep. James Smith, D-Richland and author of the bill.

Smith said he’ll continue to push for state supervision of counties that fail to follow state or federal election laws. The provision also would turn over ballots to the state for auditing if the county office doesn’t count and certify them within 48 hours after the polls close.

Smith called those provisions “fundamental” to the bill and Clemmons agreed. “I think that’s a good way to handle things,” Clemmons said.

Scott, though, warned against complicating the debate by expanding it beyond the method of merging the two boards.

“The goal now is to get the bill done and get it to the governor’s desk,” Scott said.

Campsen said he’s open to discussing an oversight role for the state elections office but didn’t know enough details Friday to weigh in.

“If there’s some questionable behaviors, a trigger for them to step in is reasonable,” he said. “I’m definitely open to it; I just need to hear more.”

Ballentine said he’s going into Thursday’s meeting with an open mind.

“I certainly know there’s going to have to be compromises,” he said.

“We’ve got to pass something, and we’ve got to do it for the people of the state. This is not just about Richland County; this is about all elections, for everyone in South Carolina.”

Most members of the conference committee agree a lawsuit filed in March by the S.C. Public Interest Foundation could threaten the makeup of every election board in the state. Whether a verdict against the state would jeopardize the results of upcoming primary elections is a matter of debate, but some say it’s just not worth the risk.

The organization asked a judge to throw out a 2008 state law on how county election offices are constructed. That law essentially wrapped into a single law the counties’ various governance models in an attempt to make some single-county laws constitutional after the attorney general’s office concluded they weren’t.

Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, sought a new opinion from Attorney General Alan Wilson after a senator blocked debate on his election bill.

While the 2008 law addresses all 46 counties, “the effect is a different result in each county,” Solicitor General Robert Cook wrote in a 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.”

The Associated Press contributed.

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