Both the House and Senate have passed a bill designed to prevent a lawsuit from throwing South Carolina’s elections into chaos again. But their versions differ. A six-member panel appointed this week will try to reach a compromise on the legislation, which is aimed at creating a statewide model for county election boards. Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin has urged his colleagues to act quickly, noting a verdict on a lawsuit filed in March could jeopardize the June primaries. The South Carolina Public Interest Foundation has asked a judge to throw out a 2008 state law on how county election offices are constructed. Martin had warned such a lawsuit was likely, citing advice from the attorney general’s office that the law is unconstitutional. If a court affirms the top prosecutor’s opinion, there could be no one left locally to conduct elections, he said. Lawmakers also fear the potential of a verdict overturning upcoming elections. Legislators don’t want to take that chance two years after a lawsuit against a single candidate resulted in about 250 people being kicked off primary ballots statewide.
“The thought of it is too much to process after the 2012 election fiasco,” said Rep. Alan Clemmons, R-Myrtle Beach, chairman of the House Judiciary’s election law subcommittee. “After that statewide embarrassment, I would hope that the General Assembly will see the necessity in preventing a chapter two of that unfortunate novel, and that we close the book on the election problems of the last round.”
The House version of the fix, passed 81-32 last month, allows counties to continue separating the oversight of elections and voter registration. Eight of the state’s 46 counties still have separate boards. Only two of those eight – Cherokee and Williamsburg – separate all operations, with different directors and office space, according to the state Election Commission.
The Senate version, approved 36-1 and returned Tuesday to the House, forces a merger. It lays out a single governance structure for the counties to follow.