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Beaufort County election officials say South Carolina law doesn't require them to administer next year's Republican presidential primary, which they argue shouldn't be funded by taxpayers.
Local officials sent a letter Tuesday to the S.C. Election Commission with that message, pushing back against what they see as an usurpation of county power.
The commission intends to conduct February's GOP primary -- and a Democratic one, if needed -- and it plans to enlist local election boards for help.
Scott Marshall, executive director of the county Board of Elections and Voter Registration, argues the commission doesn't have the legal authority to issue such a mandate or commit local tax dollars.
In 2004 and before, political parties ran their own primaries independent of the state. The S.C. legislature passed a law in 2007 that required the state commission to conduct 2008 primaries.
"Both parties were having high-profile presidential primaries, and there was a desire amongst members of the general assembly to have the primaries run by election professionals," said commission spokesman Chris Whitmire.
The question is whether that law -- and the authority it grants the commission -- expired after 2008, or whether it still applies.
S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson held in a June opinion that even though the law specifically refers to "the 2008 election cycle," it still is on the books and in effect. Wilson also suggested the legislature intended the law to be permanent.
Beaufort County officials reject that conclusion.
At the Aug. 31 board meeting, Marshall called it a watershed moment and an overreach by the state agency.
"I've been here a little over two years, and that's not a long time," he said. "But in the short time I have been here, I've seen the state election commission repeatedly make decisions which impact counties and their voters directly without the moral or legal authority to do so."
Board members also object that county taxpayers might end up paying for some primary costs.
Whitmire said holding just the GOP primary -- the most probable outcome -- will cost the state about $1.3 million.
About half -- $680,000 -- is included in the state's budget, and the S.C. GOP has pledged to raise the rest through filing fees and private donations.
But the county does not receive reimbursement for some election expenses, such as employee overtime or repair to voting machines, Marshall said.
For instance, the 2010 general election cost the county $125,730, he told the board. Only $79,683 was reimbursed.
In an era of belt-tightening -- amid debates over school closures and employee furloughs -- taxpayers shouldn't spend a penny on a partisan primary, the letter to the state argues.
"We cannot in good conscience advocate the use of any Beaufort County fiscal resources to subsidize events for political parties when it is already a challenge to maintain day-to-day quality of life for our residents," officials wrote.
The (Columbia) State contributed to this report.
Follow reporter Kyle Peterson at twitter.com/EyeOnBeaufortCo.