Politics & Government

SC lawmakers shouldn’t choose their voters, draw their districts, most in SC say

Two-thirds of South Carolinians say state legislators should not draw their district’s political boundaries. Instead, those South Carolinians want an independent body to draw voting districts for U.S. House, and S.C. House and state Senate seats, according to a new Winthrop Poll.

Even more South Carolinians — four of five — say districts should be drawn based on an area’s natural community, no matter which political party an area’s residents tend to vote for, according to Winthrop Poll questions, asked for The State.

The drawing of election districts increasingly is controversial.

Supporters of the current system say it simply favors the political party favored by the majority of South Carolinians.

Critics say the current system — where S.C.. legislators draw election districts — allows politicians to choose their voters, rather than voters elect their representatives.

That “gerrymandering” — packing a district with as many white voters as possible, who account for more than 90 percent of Republican votes, or black voters, who account for roughly 60 percent of Democratic votes — increases partisanship, those critics say. It also results in many elections being decided in party primaries because they are so uncompetitive — favoring one party or the other — that the general election result is a foregone conclusion or uncontested.

“It’s not surprising,” Winthrop Poll director Scott Huffmon said Thursday of South Carolinians’ preference for an independent commission. “People have their (political) tribe, but they also want a fair playing field.”

The poll’s question was worded after a bill introduced by state Rep. Gary Clary, R-Pickens, during the last legislative session. Clary’s proposal, which did not pass, would have removed lawmakers from deciding election boundaries.

Now, South Carolina’s GOP-controlled Legislature draws the state’s voting map to favor Republicans.

Republicans regularly get up to 60 percent of South Carolinians’ votes. But they control 86 percent of the state’s seats in the U.S. House — six of seven. Meanwhile, Democrats get 40 percent of the vote and control only 14 percent of the seats in Congress.

There is only one Democratic congressman, U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn of Columbia, whose district — shaped like an amoeba — loops from Columbia through the Pee Dee down Interstate 95 to the Savannah River to form the state’s only majority-black district.

That decades-long gerrymandering also has resulted in a GOP-controlled Legislature after Republicans and black Democrats struck a deal in the early 1990s. As part of that deal, legislators drew as many black-majority districts — Democratic — as possible. That left most of the remaining districts overwhelmingly white — or Republican.

It’s unclear whether Clary’s bill to address political boundaries will gain traction in the Legislature next year.

The state’s Republican Party opposes efforts to change how the state decides its voting districts.

Democrats who want to change the system only want to “because they don’t do well under the (current) system,” said S.C. GOP chair Drew McKissick. “It’s like changing the rules in the middle of the game because you’re losing.”

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Winthrop’s Huffmon said S.C. Republicans can remember when the state was dominated by Democrats, who drew lines to their party’s advantage. “Most people have lived in an era when their party was the one on the outside.”

But all that could change after 2020, when the federal government updates the U.S. Census.

How S.C. lawmakers redraw political lines after the 2020 Census could be challenged in court. That already has happened in several states — in Wisconsin and Maryland, for instance — where minority parties have gone to court to challenge voting districts drawn by the state’s majority party.

Any effort to change the state’s political districts must be made in good faith, S.C. Democrats say.

“Right now, we’re creating governments of radicals to the left and to the right, who get elected in primaries and, therefore, a certain segment of ... citizens are not being represented,” said Trav Robertson, chair of the S.C. Democratic Party.

But, Robertson added, “I’m not in favor of making this a hyper-partisan issue.”

The poll surveyed 674 S.C. adults from Oct. 20 to 28. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.

Bristow Marchant contributed to this report. Maayan Schechter: 803-771-8657, @MaayanSchechter

SC’s party lines

Should district lines be drawn based on natural communities or the political party a community votes for?

Vote certain way: 11%

Natural community: 80%

Not sure or refused to answer: 9%

Would you support or oppose the creation of an independent body to redraw district lines?

Support: 65%

Oppose: 24%

Not sure or refused to answer: 11%

SOURCE: Winthrop Poll
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