COLUMBIA — The South Carolina Supreme Court said Thursday that it will hear arguments in a challenge to the first-in-the-South presidential primary on Nov. 14.
Last month, four counties sued the state Election Commission and the state Republican and Democratic parties. Beaufort, Chester, Greenville and Spartanburg counties said in their lawsuit that the state lacks the authority to conduct a primary and can’t force them to spend taxpayer money on what they described as a private event.
Counties say the state and party aren’t doing enough to take care of their bills, noting that the state’s 46 counties had $1 million in unreimbursed expenses from the 2008 primaries.
Until 2008, South Carolina’s political parties ran and paid for their presidential nominating contests. In 2007, the Legislature approved one-time funding for the 2008 primaries in a wide-open race for the White House.
The counties say the Legislature didn’t update the law.
Attorney General Alan Wilson told the court the counties overlooked the commission’s authority to run the election based on budget provisions that “expressly authorize the State Election Commission to conduct the 2012 presidential preference primary.”
Wilson said the primary is far from a private function and the public spending “serves the public purpose of an informed electorate and an informed decision-making process.”
There is no Democratic primary planned. The Election Commission expects the GOP primary will cost $1.5 million. Legislators are allowing the commission to use up to $680,000 and to contract with the state GOP to cover the rest.
To cover the bulk of the primary’s costs, the GOP is charging candidates filing fees of as much as $35,000 and holding fundraisers.
For instance, state GOP Chairman Chad Connelly said next week’s presidential debate in Spartanburg has drawn 4,000 ticket requests. But the only people guaranteed one of up to 2,000 seats are those who have become at least $120-a-year GOP members and paid at least $250 for a pair of reception tickets to rub elbows with candidates before the debate.
In a letter last week, Joel Collins, a Columbia lawyer who represents the counties, renewed an offer to settle the case if the Republican Party and the state Election Commission put $2.5 million in escrow to make sure all 46 counties’ costs are covered.
The GOP rebuffed the offer.
“We are going we’re going to win on the merits and we’re totally confident the law is on our side,” Connelly said.