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Thorny Issue - or Briar Patch? SC Counties Drive a Hard Bargain on Presidential Primary

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[Image courtesy of theprayinglife]

This week, Stateline.org has been running a series looking at the relationship between states and localities in the current fiscal environment. Monday's story paints a fairly bleak picture, noting that localities are going to have to learn "to do less with less" as funds traditionally available from the state begin to disappear.

A subsequent story looked at ways to rethink the state-local partnership - including efforts in Indiana and New York to reduce or eliminate local government functions entirely. Such changes would have a tremendous impact on election administration, which is still predominantly controlled by officials at the smallest levels of government. Consequently, you might expect local officials to fight any effort to relieve them of their traditional responsibilities.

And yet, a unique twist on this story is unfolding in South Carolina, where counties are fiercely resisting efforts by the state and political parties to force them to fund the 2012 Presidential preference primary. The Palmetto State has become, in the last few cycles, a key state in the nomination contest (especially on the Republican side) and this year the state is jockeying with other early states like Florida and Nevada along with traditional leaders Iowa and New Hampshire for a prime spot on the calendar. Yesterday, South Carolina announced that it would hold its primary on January 21 - ten days before Florida.

But the counties, who have neither interest in the presidential race nor any say in the schedule, are exerting what influence they do have to mitigate the costs. The counties know that presidential primaries are not immune from fiscal concerns - after all, Washington State outright cancelled theirs to save money - and they are determined not to get stuck with the bill.

This has set up a fascinating dynamic. The State Election Commission and the state GOP are pledging that they will pay "all legitimate expenses" of the vote - and the counties are preparing to go to court if necessary to make sure that those "legitimate expenses" cover the full tab.

Thus, while you might expect local officials to fight tooth and nail not to relinquish control over election administration, in this case South Carolina's counties are threatening to walk away from those responsibilities unless their costs are covered.

In other words, counties are pursuing a briar patch strategy that would make Br'er Rabbit proud - they will plead not to be forced to hold the primary, but then will pretend to go unhappily when the expenses are paid - which is what they wanted in the first place.

To be honest, this is less about political power and more about comparative advantage. For most localities, conducting elections are part of the briar patch where they were "born and bred" - and until states and/or parties learn how to handle the thorns involved with Election Day, localities will likely get paid to be thrown into the patch again and again.

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