State law allows the S.C. Election Commission to run the 2012 S.C. Republican presidential primary even if Gov. Nikki Haley vetoes sections of the state budget intended to ensure the agency oversees that vote, according to an opinion issued Monday by S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson.
Haley has threatened to veto sections of the budget that allow the Election Commission to use $680,000 in its savings to help pay the primary’s estimated $1.5 million cost. Republican Haley repeatedly has said taxpayers should not pay for the primary.
In addition, lawmakers failed to add a section to the budget making it clear the state Election Commission could contract with the S.C. GOP to conduct the primary. S.C. GOP chairman Chad Connelly said last week that, without the state’s electronic voting machines, paid poll workers and other oversight, the party legally might not be able to host the primary, expected to be held in February or March.
The S.C. GOP primary, the first in the South, holds a key early-voting position in the presidential selection process. The winner of the S.C. primary has gone on to win the GOP nomination every election cycle since Ronald Reagan captured the state in 1980.
Republican Wilson’s advisory ruling, which does not carry the force of law, says a 2007 state law that allowed the Election Commission to run the 2008 presidential primaries still applies. The elections agency had asked Wilson’s office if it was allowed to contract with the state GOP.
“Unless the statute is repealed, or a court concludes otherwise, we believe the answer to your question is yes,” the opinion states. “The State Election Commission possesses the authority either to conduct the Presidential Preference Primary itself, or, in the alternative, to contract with the parties to do so.”
Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire said Wilson’s advisory opinion would require the agency to conduct the primary whether any money to pay for it was set aside or not.
“We not only have the authority but a mandate to run the primary,” Whitmire said, adding elections officials still were reviewing Wilson’s ruling Monday afternoon. If no state money is budgeted to run the primary and the state GOP can’t raise enough to pay for it, Whitmire said the Election Commission could be forced to ask to run a deficit.