The Buzz

SC's voting map now is drawn along party lines. Here’s how that could change

Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Bamberg, left, and Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, right, look at redistricting maps in a 2011 session of the South Carolina Legislature.
Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Bamberg, left, and Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, right, look at redistricting maps in a 2011 session of the South Carolina Legislature. tdominick@thestate.com

South Carolina could have as many as three Democrats in Congress — up from the current one. Or it could have multiple congressional districts that are complete toss-ups between the Democratic and Republican candidates.

Voters in Richland and Lexington counties could put in a single congressional district that would be so evenly split that it would be a toss-up as which party would carry the U.S. House seat.

Those are some of the options S.C. voters could be offered the next time state lawmakers decide to redraw the state’s congressional districts after the 2020 Census, according to data crunched by the website FiveThirtyEight.

The website looked at how each state’s congressional districts could be redrawn to maximize the Republican or Democratic advantage, increase minority representation or make districts as compact or symmetrical as possible.

In almost all states, legislatures draw their own district lines — effectively choosing their voters, rather can the voters choosing their lawmakers. Legislators also draw the lines for U.S. House districts, usually in ways that are favorable to one party or another – a process called gerrymandering.

As a result of that gerrymandering by the GOP-controlled Legislature, the Palmetto State currently has six Republican congressmen plus one Democrat, representing the state’s only majority-black district. (That’s pretty nifty map-making, considering that 40+ percent of the state’s voters consistently vote Democratic.)

The FiveThirtyEight map gives some examples of what some alternatives could look like. And there are ways some of those alternatives could become reality, if the Legislature approves a new way to draw maps or if the Supreme Court rules the old way of deciding is unconstitutional.

‘Not what you would want’

A bill filed by state Rep. Gary Clary, R-Pickens, would take redistricting decisions out of the hands of lawmakers, creating an independent commission to redraw voting-district lines every 10 years.

“It just seems that having legislators draw the lines of their own district, Senate districts, congressional districts is not what you would want them to be doing,” said Clary, a retired judge who is often a voice for good government and ethics reform in the House.

Under Clary’s bill, the two party leaders in the House and the two in the Senate each would name a member to the redistricting commission, none of whom could be elected officials. Two members of the commission would be named by the governor, only one of whom could belong to the governor’s party. The six members would then name a seventh member.

That would result in a redistricting commission that is less political than the current legislative process, if not an apolitical one.

Courts could decide

If S.C. legislators don’t act on the issue, courts could do so for them.

Nationwide, challenges to many states’ redistricting maps are moving through courts.

▪ The U.S. Supreme Court has heard a challenge to Wisconsin’s congressional map as unfairly favoring Republicans

▪ The justices also will consider a suit alleging a Maryland district was drawn to favor Democrats

▪ Last month, a federal court ruled North Carolina’s congressional lines are so partisan they are unconstitutional

▪ Two weeks later, the Pennsylvania state Supreme Court struck down that state’s congressional map

South Carolina Secretary of State Mark Hammond, R-Spartanburg, has joined with other Republicans nationwide to urge the Supreme Court to put the Pennsylvania court’s redistricting decision on hold. Hammond argues it could create chaos if states have to redraw their election maps ahead of the 2018 elections.

Increased polarization, reduced accountability

The League of Women Voters of South Carolina has made redistricting reform a high priority. League vice president Lynn Teague says the way districts are drawn now discourages voters from casting a ballot in elections.

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 went unchallenged.

“Gerrymandering tells them (voters) they have no choice, that their votes are taken away,” Teague said.

At the same time, the lack of competition in November general elections increases the importance of low-turnout party primaries, where the electorate is more ideological — Republican voters who are more conservative and Democratic voters who are more liberal.

“That increases polarization and greatly reduces lawmakers’ accountability because they don’t feel like they have to be responsive to all their constituents,” Teague said.

She also worries the current way that voting lines are drawn gives far too much consideration to the incumbents of either party.

“There’s a great temptation to draw lines that exclude someone who could run against you or that keep your donors in the district,” Teague said. “You might even say, ‘There’s a constituent who’s after me, so let’s draw it so he’ll pester somebody else.’ ”

A single Lexington-Richland district?

Under FiveThirtyEight’s redistricting map, two new “highly competitive” congressional districts could be created in South Carolina.

One would be centered on Charleston and the Lowcountry, stretching from Beaufort to Aiken. The other district would stretch from Columbia northward, including Fairfield, Kershaw and Chesterfield counties.

The state also could create a second majority-minority district, centered on the capital city and including largely African-American areas to the north and the east in a boomerang configuration.

However, maximizing black representation in Congress also would maximize the political polarization in all of South Carolina’s congressional districts, FiveThirtyEight’s voter data found.

On the other hand, a district that included only Richland and Lexington counties would be the most competitive in the state, with an estimated 50 percent chance of being represented by a Republican and a 49 percent chance of a Democrat winning.

The most favorable map for Republicans that FiveThirtyEight could design?

The GOP-drawn map that South Carolinians currently use to elect their congressional representatives.

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