Members of a six-man legislative committee signaled Thursday they would be willing to provide the state elections office with some oversight over county offices.
But details remain unsettled and the conference committee will meet again soon, said Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee and committee chairman.
“Hopefully we’ll finish up next week,” he said.
Speed is important, as the General Assembly typically wraps up in early June, and legislators say they must address the patchwork of laws governing the management of elections across 46 S.C. counties – especially in light of the June 10 primary only weeks away.
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Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Richland, set out a scenario that would have the House accept a requirement that each county merge their elections and voter registration boards, while the Senate compromises on some form of oversight by the S.C. Elections Commission.
Ballentine said including what he called “the accountability piece” of state oversight of county offices is essential to House passage.
The conference committee is reconciling two bills. It cannot insert anything new that’s not in one bill or the other.
One section would allow the state to “conduct reviews, audits, or other post-election analysis of county boards of elections” to ensure laws are being followed. Another would allow the state office to take over administrative functions of a county office if that analysis revealed problems.
Some indicated they could accept the reviews but not the takeover.
“We’re pretty close on that,” said Sen. John Scott, D-Richland.
Lynn Teague, lobbyist for the League of Women Voters of South Carolina, said she was pleased committee members were leaning toward state election audits, which she called “crucial.”
“I was glad to hear as much agreement as I did hear,” Teague said. “We are down to the wire.”
In 38 counties, once-separate elections and voter registration boards have been combined. In Richland County, the boards are separate.
Marci Andino, director of the S.C. Elections Commission, said combined boards have proved best, as election laws have become more technical over the years.
Whether to force mergers for uniformity across the state is a key provision the committee seemed willing to accept – since not doing so could make the state vulnerable to legal challenges.
Asked by Peeler about the oversight provision, Andino said her office mostly provides guidance to county officials.
“We see that as our role,” she said. “But there have been instances when we knew things were coming unraveled ... and they did not want our assistance, especially on Election Day.”
Other members of the conference committee, all of whom attended Thursday, are Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston; Rep. Alan Clemmons, R-Horry; Rep. James Smith, D-Richland.
Compromise legislation must have the support of at least two House members and two senators to pass out of the conference committee. Then the bill must receive majority votes in both the House and Senate, and the law would take effect when signed by the governor.