South Carolina’s black and white communities are voting in blocs against each other, a reality that requires, under federal law, some election districts to have a majority of black voters, Republicans argued Friday in the final day of a trial contesting the legality of the state’s new House and congressional districts.
Democrats objected to that argument, saying those districts only needed enough minorities to elect black voters’ “candidate of choice” – a scenario that does not always require a black-majority district.
Instead, the Democrats charge, the GOP-controlled state Legislature approved a redistricting plan that packed as many black voters as possible into districts already represented by black lawmakers, “destroying” potential interracial voting coalitions.
If a panel of three federal judges – Patrick Michael Duffy, Henry E. Floyd and Margaret B. Seymour – rules in favor of the Democrats, that ruling could disrupt elections for the state’s 124 S.C. House seats and seven U.S. House seats by forcing the drawing of new election maps. Filing for those offices opens March 16.
The judges have promised to decide the case by Friday.
In their case, Democrats – led by state Democratic Party chairman Dick Harpootlian, a Columbia attorney – cite House District 79 as an example of “packing.” In 2010, that district – then 34 percent African-American – elected Democrat Mia Butler Garrick, who is black. But after redistricting, 51 percent of the voting-age population will be black.
Democrats say that increase is a gross example of packing black voters into a “black” district for no reason other than to segregate voters racially. They hired an expert, George Mason University professor Michael McDonald, who testified the district did not need a majority of black voters.
But Republicans say black voters in House District 79 consistently have voted in a bloc against white voters, who also vote in a bloc. In the 2008 general election, 88 percent of black voters in that district voted for the black presidential candidate – Barack Obama – while only 12.7 percent of white voters voted for Obama, they said.
Tom Burnell, an expert on elections and redistricting at the University of Texas at Dallas, testified Friday those numbers show “racially polarized voting” – meaning whites and blacks vote against each other. Because of that, Republicans argue federal law requires the district to be a majority-minority district with a majority of its voters African-American.
“They claim in this case is not that we failed to retain the requisite number of minority-majority (black-controlled) districts, but the claim is that we did too many,” said Bobby Stepp, an attorney with Sowell Gray Stepp & Laffitte, who is representing Harrell.
After the trial, Moses Mims, one of the six black voters who filed the lawsuit, said the Republican argument places too much emphasis on race. “We need to get to the point where we don’t think we’ve got to elect a black person to represent black people or a white person to represent white people.”