Politics & Government

How the Supreme Court could shake up SC’s election map

Redrawing districts to benefit political parties is not new

Federal judges recently ruled that Republicans unconstitutionally gerrymandered two North Carolina congressional districts by race. But redrawing districts to benefit the political party in power is nothing new and has been going on for years.
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Federal judges recently ruled that Republicans unconstitutionally gerrymandered two North Carolina congressional districts by race. But redrawing districts to benefit the political party in power is nothing new and has been going on for years.

Filing opens Friday for candidates running in South Carolina’s 2018 election — from the governor and statewide offices to congressional and S.C. House races.

But hanging over this election season are two U.S. Supreme Court cases that could reshape the state’s elections.

Wisconsin Democrats claim that state’s election districts are so politically gerrymandered — redistricted to favor Republican candidates — that they violate voters’ constitutional rights. In another case before the Supreme Court, Maryland Republicans claim Democrats in that state unfairly gerrymandered a congressional district to favor their party. The justices’ decisions, expected this summer, could change the way election lines are drawn for federal, state and local races in South Carolina and across the country.

The charge of hyper-partisan redistricting long has been made in South Carolina, where the GOP-controlled Legislature redraws election districts.

The results of that hyper-partisanship could be seen again Friday as S.C. candidates start declaring for races.

June’s Democratic and Republican primary elections are likely to be hotly contested.

However, November’s general election largely could be a nonevent for many offices. In 2016, for instance, 92 out of 124 S.C. House candidates ran unopposed in the general election. In the Senate, 38 of 46 candidates did not face an opponent in the general election.

The way South Carolina’s election districts are drawn now heightens political polarization and discourages voters from participating because many races aren’t competitive, said Lynn Teague with the League of Women Voters.

The current election districts — profoundly Democratic or profoundly Republican — also make for bad democracy. Elected officials know the June primaries are the important hurdle to election, so they cater to their party’s primary voters. If they win then, they can coast through the November general election, often unopposed.

“It’s easy for a representative to ignore one part of the electorate,” Teague said.

A bill in the S.C. Legislature would take the power to redraw election districts away from lawmakers — done after every census to ensure each district has the same population — and have an independent commission draw the maps instead.

Most South Carolinians favor that idea, according to a recent Winthrop Poll.

However, others are looking to the Supreme Court to fix a political system that they say is broken.

Voters know what they don’t like

The Supreme Court will consider whether redistricting can be determined to be unconstitutional using a new measurement called the “efficiency gap,” said Matthew Saltzman, a Clemson University mathematician who is working on a similar analysis of South Carolina’s election districts.

That measurement says an efficiency gap of zero is fair. A gap of more than 7 percent assures political power for one party or the other, according to the measurement.

One calculation, based on 2016 vote totals, showed South Carolina’s election districts had an efficiency gap of 17 percent in favor of Republican candidates, said Clemson’s Saltzman.

The website FiveThirtyEight rates South Carolina’s congressional map as having a 23 percent efficiency gap, higher than the challenged Wisconsin districts. South Carolina’s congressional map is the most favorable for Republicans that could be drawn after the 2010 census, FiveThirtyEight said.

Most South Carolinians might not know about efficiency gaps.

But they don’t like the current redistricting system, which amounts to legislators choosing their voters, not the democratic ideal of voters choosing their representatives.

A poll conducted by Winthrop University last month found 68 percent of the South Carolinians — including 73 percent of Democrats and 68 percent of Republicans — surveyed favor an independent redistricting commission, rather than lawmakers approving their own election districts.

The League of Women Voters of S.C. is backing a House bill to establish an independent commission in South Carolina as a potential fix to redistricting issues. But Teague said she also is watching what new guidelines might come out of the Supreme Court.

“We’ll not always have competitive districts,” Teague said. “But we could establish a mathematical way to determine when they are disproportionate.”

Cracking and packing

After Republicans took control of Wisconsin’s legislature in 2010, they set about redrawing the Badger State’s election districts, based on the census conducted that year. Running in the new election districts, the GOP won 61 percent of the seats in Wisconsin’s General Assembly in 2012 despite winning only 48.6 percent of votes statewide.

Such gerrymandering — redistricting election districts to lock in a political party’s advantage — is common after each 10-year census. But if the Supreme Court strikes down Wisconsin’s map, it would be the first time the nation’s highest court has ruled election districts are unconstitutional because they brazenly were drawn to favor one political party over the other.

Redistricting long has been controversial.

Commonly, gerrymandering — which gets its name from a colonial governor named Elbridge Gerry who drew an election map that looked like a salamander — has been done one of two ways. The politicians who draw election districts either “pack” supporters of the minority party into as few districts as possible, where their candidates win a few seats by large majorities, or “crack” them across as many districts as possible, where their candidates win little but lose by more modest margins.

In South Carolina, critics have long pointed to the 6th District as an example of a “packed” district, a district drawn to have as many Democratic-voting African-American voters as possible.

In the 6th, U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn of Columbia, the state’s only Democratic congressman, regularly wins re-election by wide margins in South Carolina’s only majority-black electoral district.

“In U.S. congressional districts (in South Carolina), you can see African-Americans make up 30 percent of the state’s population, but have only one in seven seats,” said Duncan Buell, a computer science professor at the University of South Carolina.

But the profoundly black Democratic makeup of Clyburn’s district means the state’s other congressional districts tend to whiter and more Republican.

“The 6th is not hellaciously bad,” said John Ruoff, an S.C.-based consultant on redistricting and voting rights. “But it is bad in that it is a higher (concentration of minority voters) than it needs to be an equal opportunity district for African-American voters.”