Politics & Government

Exclusive: Bill aims to ‘take politics’ out of drawing district lines

A Democratic state senator wants to end the practice of S.C. lawmakers choosing who votes for them.

Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, introduced a bill Wednesday that would create an independent commission to draw the state’s political districts. Lawmakers in the GOP-controlled Legislature now control that process.

“Issues are not Republican or Democratic issues. They’re South Carolina issues,” said Setzler, adding his bill “takes politics out of the process” and empowers the public.

S.C. voters would approve or reject the boundaries of new political districts in a statewide referendum if the bill becomes law.

The state redraws its political boundaries for S.C. House, state Senate and U.S. House seats after each 10-year U.S. Census. The next Census is in 2020.

Critics say letting lawmakers control that process has resulted in fewer competitive races as legislators strike deals to protect incumbents by drawing districts that favor one political party over the other. Both Republicans and Democrats have benefited from the process, shoring up the number of their party’s voters in districts their party controls to protect incumbents from challenges.

The issue is garnering attention nationally. The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard arguments on redistricting cases in Virginia and North Carolina but has not ruled.

In Florida and North Carolina, judges have ordered district lines redrawn after lawsuits alleged that black, typically Democratic voters were packed into districts. That packing increased minority voters’ influence in those districts but diminished their impact in nearby Republican districts.

Then-S.C. Democratic Party chairman Dick Harpootlian challenged the last set of newly drawn district lines in 2012. However, a panel of federal judges unanimously upheld the districts as drawn.

Still, South Carolina’s districts have their critics. Some complain that races are not competitive, which discourages candidates from running and weakens the democratic process.

Those critics include the leaders of South Carolina’s Republican and Democratic parties, who have said they would support putting a stop to lawmakers drawing district lines. But convincing elected officials to give up the power of choosing their voters likely will be a heavy lift.

So far, Setzler said he has one co-sponsor for his bill — state Sen. Mia McLeod, D-Richland — in the 46-member Senate.

“There’s probably not a lot of appetite for it anytime when you’re going to take (power) away from the General Assembly,” Setzler said.

Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, leader of the Senate’s majority party Republicans, told The State last year that he would be “reluctant to give up that authority to an outside group.”

Redrawing S.C. district lines

The state will begin redrawing district lines after the next U.S. Census in 2020. Critics say an independent panel, not lawmakers, should do the job.

Democrats represented? S.C. voters often split 55 percent Republican to 45 percent Democratic in statewide races. But of the state’s seven U.S. House seats, only one is held by a Democrat: U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn of Columbia. African-Americans, who typically vote Democratic, make up more than half the voters in Clyburn’s 6th District.

Competitive State House races? Voters in only 28 percent of the state’s legislative districts had a choice of more than one candidate on the ballot last November. Many legislative races were decided in the GOP and Democratic primaries. Critics say that reality discourages would-be candidates from seeking public office and weakens the democratic process.