South Carolina Democrats are trying to take the partisan politics out of congressional districting — and put an end to gerrymandering in the state.
Three Democratic state lawmakers have introduced a bill that would call for any new maps for South Carolina state house and senate districts, as well as the state’s U.S. congressional districts, to be drawn by an independent panel under the direction of the inspector general’s office.
The new district maps would then be voted on by S.C. residents in a state-wide referendum.
Bill S 341 was introduced by Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler of Lexington. Freshman Democratic senators Mia McLeod of Columbia and Mike Fanning of Great Falls co-sponsored the bill.
The proposal “takes the politics out of it and it returns the power to the peopleto decide about reapportionment,” Setzler told The Post and Courier.
Gerrymandering in several states has led to increasingly disproportionate representation at both the state and federal levels in recent years. Both Democrats and Republicans contribute to the problem, but Republicans are notorious for being particularly aggressive when redrawing district maps.
North Carolina, for instance, suffers from one of the most extreme instances of gerrymandering in history, as DEFIANT previously reported. There are 600,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in the state. Barack Obama won the presidential election there in 2008 and lost by a very thin margin in 2012. And the Democrats controlled the state legislature for more than 100 years prior to 2010.
Despite all of this, Republicans now enjoy a supermajority in the state general assembly thanks to gerrymandered districts they drew up after winning a majority in the state legislature in 2010, when several new Republican legislators gained office with the backing of the Tea Party.
Last year, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina ruled that the General Assembly must redraw the map for 28 of its 170 state electoral districts cited in Covington v. The State of North Carolina and hold special elections in 2017.
Likewise, in Florida in 2016 a judge approved a new district map after a lengthy legal battle in which Democrats argued that Republicans had illegally gerrymandered the state’s district.
The ruling validated a map drawn by the League of Women Voters, Common Cause of Florida and several prominent Democrats and was approved by Leon County circuit court judge Terry Lewis. The Florida legislature had previously tried and failed to agree to a map in a special redistricting session.
The court’s decision failed to satisfy the concerns of all Democrats in the state, however. U.S. representatives Frederica Wilson of Miami Gardens and Corrine Brown of Jacksonville argued that the new map still restricted the ability of constituents in their districts to elect minorities. They threatened to sue if a new map was not submitted.
South Carolina Democrats have not had much luck with the courts when it comes to gerrymandering cases.
In 2012, attorney Dick Harpootlian, the state Democratic Party chairman at the time, challenged new district lines draw up for South Carolina’s U.S. House of Representative seats and state congressional districts. A panel of three federal judges upheld the district boundaries, which had been approved by South Carolina’s Republican-controlled General Assembly.
“Plaintiffs have failed to prove that the General Assembly acted with a discriminatory purpose,” Judge Patrick Michael Duffy of the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina wrote in the court’s ruling. “There is no convincing evidence indicating the General Assembly drew the district lines for the purpose of diluting plaintiffs’ voting strengths.”
Considering that Republicans hold a supermajority in the S.C. legislature, it’s unlikely that Democrats will have much luck passing the new anti-gerrymandering bill. South Carolina is arguably considerably more conservative than its neighbor to the north, as presidential election results suggest.
Seltzer acknowledges that the bill faces an uphill battle. “There’s probably not a lot of appetite for it anytime when you’re going to take [power] away from the General Assembly,” Setzler told The State.
The State quoted state Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey (R-Edgefield) last year as saying he would be “reluctant to give up that authority to an outside group.”
While Republican-led gerrymandering has undoubtedly hurt Democrats in the state, it is more difficult to get a grasp on how underrepresented Democrats may be in the General Assembly, because in South Carolina voters do not register by party affiliation.
If Democrats in South Carolina want to try to even the playing field in state and federal congressional districts, they need to act quickly. Political boundaries for state house, senate and U.S. house districts are redrawn every 10 years, after a U.S. census. The next census is scheduled for 2020.
If you live in South Carolina or know someone who does and would like to urge state officials to support S 341, you can contact Sen. Nikki Seltzer at (803) 212–6140, Sen. Mia McLeod at (803) 212–6124 and Sen. Mike Fanning at (803) 212–6024.