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Early Primary Date Upheld By S.C. Supreme Court

The South Carolina Supreme Court by a 3-2 vote refused to block the first-in-the-South presidential primary, turning back challenges by counties that the state lacked the authority to hold it.

The court heard arguments last week in a lawsuit initially filed by four counties against the state Election Commission and the state's Republican and Democratic parties. Election officials in Beaufort, Chester, Greenville and Spartanburg counties said county taxpayers would be left with more than $1 million in costs that the state wouldn't cover for the Jan. 21 contest.

South Carolina's GOP presidential contest follows New Hampshire's on Jan. 10 and the lead-off caucus on Jan. 3 in Iowa. As the first opportunity for Southerners to express a preference for a Republican candidate, the primary could have a significant influence on the GOP race.

Columbia lawyer Joel Collins represented the counties and said the court will allow a rehearing. He said the counties have not decided whether they'll seek that option.

Matt Moore, executive director of the South Carolina Republican Party, said the GOP is looking forward to the primary and isn't worried about the close decision. "A victory is a victory," Moore said.

Before 2008, South Carolina political parties ran and paid for their own presidential nomination selection events. In 2007, the Legislature approved using taxpayer money for the wide-open primary the next year.

Counties said they were left paying for things like overtime and maintenance and didn't want that repeated. Collins argued the law didn't allow the state to run primaries after 2008.

Collins said if the court sided with the counties, the state GOP could return to using paper ballots in a party-run primary.

Lawyers for the state and the GOP argued that the authority for the primary comes through the budget law legislators passed in June.

Chief Justice Jean Toal wrote the majority opinion and mostly agreed with that view. And the majority refused to consider whether legislators set aside enough money for the primary as they declared that the primary will be held.

Associate Justice Joyce Hearn wrote the dissenting opinion, arguing that the language in the budget wasn't sufficient to trump the 2007 law. She said the majority was letting the Election Commission and political parties do through the courts what they had failed to do in the Legislature.

"While the counties should work with the political parties to ensure the smooth operation of the primary and access to polling places, I would hold there is no statutory mandate that they conduct the primary at their own expense," Hearn wrote.

The budget law allows the Election Commission put up to $680,000 into running the primary. But it is up to the GOP raise a balance of more than $800,000.

They've been scrambling to do that with fundraisers involving presidential candidates and other events.

Moore has assured the counties that the state will reimburse them for reasonable expenses.

The state Election Commission and GOP have been waiting on the court's decision to before signing a contract on how the primary will be funded and run.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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