Potential election law fix returned to Senate

Published: May. 23, 2014 at 8:04 PM EDT|Updated: Jun. 2, 2014 at 8:04 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - The House has taken a new approach to passing a bill designed to prevent South Carolina's elections from being thrown into chaos again.

The proposal sent Friday to the Senate would both create a statewide model for county election boards, to hopefully remove the threat of chaos, and give the State Election Commission oversight over those 46 boards.

That new authority could improve elections and ensure everyone's vote is counted, state elections spokesman Chris Whitmire said Friday.

Currently, if a county isn't following the law or voluntarily complying with policy, the agency can only inform local officials and legislators of a potential problem.

"They are their own entity. We can't compel them to do anything," Whitmire said.

A panel of House and Senate members had been working on a compromise over different versions of a bill on the governance of county election boards.

But that tentative compromise required a two-thirds vote in each chamber, a difficult proposition in the Senate. So the House instead attached the compromise to a separate election-related bill and, after a unanimous vote Thursday, returned that amended measure to the Senate. A simple majority approval in that chamber would send it to the governor's desk.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin said he doesn't care how the fix passes, as long as it does before the legislative session ends June 5. Voters go to the polls five days later.

Martin, R-Pickens, has repeatedly urged his colleagues to act quickly, noting a verdict on a lawsuit filed in March could jeopardize the primaries. The South Carolina Public Interest Foundation has asked a judge to throw out a 2008 state law that allows each county election office to organize differently.

The attorney general's office believes that law violates the state constitution's ban against single-county legislation. If a court affirms the top prosecutor's opinion, there could be no one left locally to conduct elections, Martin has said. Lawmakers also fear a post-election verdict could overturn the results.

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 House's initial version of the fix allowed counties to continue separating the oversight of elections and voter registration, but Martin doubts that would pass constitutional muster. The Senate version forced a merger, providing a single governance structure for the counties to follow.

The compromise adopts the Senate's merger requirement, while including the House provision that gives more authority to the State Election Commission. The compromise as passed Thursday further specifies the corrective steps if a county isn't complying with election laws or state policies.

Such accountability in elections is long overdue, said Rep. Alan Clemmons, R-Myrtle Beach.

The proposal would require post-election audits, bolstering what's already done.

Since 2010, the state agency has audited electronic voting data, but counties participate voluntarily.

A timely audit would have caught Richland County's incorrect vote totals before the November 2010 and 2013 election results were certified, Whitmire said. In 2010, more than 1,100 votes weren't counted in that county. In 2013, more than 1,000 votes weren't part of the certified total. While those votes didn't impact the elections' outcome, "our mission is to count every vote. Our motto is every vote matters," he said.

The bill's authority also would have enabled the state agency to assist Richland County following its long lines of 2012, to formally recommend how to prevent that from happening again, Whitmire said. Voters stood in line for up to six hours because voting machines weren't properly distributed among the precincts.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press.