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  • Writer's pictureDavid M. Rubin


With apologies to Shakespeare, "To pack or not to pack? To crack or not to crack? Those are the questions."

Now that the delayed 2020 Census data have been released, Shakespeare should be much on the minds of those responsible for redistricting the state. The stakes are very high. How districts will be drawn greatly influences who will be elected to the Statehouse in Columbia and to Congress from now until 2030.

While South Carolina did not gain an additional seat in the House of Representatives, it did gain nearly 480,000 new residents between 2010 and 2020. The redistricting process must group those people--and all potential voters in the State--into districts. Voters of similar racial or voting backgrounds might be packed into a few districts, or districts might be cracked open and made more diverse. What is the best strategy to adopt?

There are few rules for how this is to be done. Our seven Congressional districts must each have roughly 730,000 residents, an increase from 664,000. No district can deviate from this by more than a single percentage point or it will run afoul of one person-one vote Constitutional requirements. State legislative districts cannot deviate in size by more than ten percent.

But there is little else that binds those who draw the new district lines. They will pay lip service to a few politically neutral goals, such as maintaining geographic integrity of a district, or uniting communities of interest within a district.

Of far greater significance to the final outcome, however, is the reality that South Carolina has a "Trifecta" system for drawing districts, so we know how this game is likely to be played out.

In South Carolina's Trifecta system, a committee of State Senators (#1) draws the new Senate lines. A committee of State House members (#2) draws the House lines. Together they draw the lines for the seven House seats in Washington. The Governor (#3) can veto the resulting maps, but the Legislature can override the veto with a two-thirds vote.

The Senate redistricting committee is 4-3 Republican in membership. The House committee is 5-3 Republican. The Governor is, of course, Republican. Thus, the "Trifecta". So it's game over, pretty much.

Depending on how the lines are drawn, Democrats could have a shot at taking two more of the seven seats in Congress between now and 2030.

In addition, as Post and Courier columnist Cindi Scoppe noted, while statewide candidates like Lindsey Graham and Donald Trump won roughly 55 percent of the vote, Republicans hold 65 percent of the seats in both the State Senate and in the House, and six of the seven Congressional seats. Clearly, as she notes, Republicans are punching well above their voting weight, and that is because of how the state is districted (or gerrymandered, if you prefer).

More equitable districts could return the First District House seat, held by Democrat Joe Cunningham from 2018 to 2020, to a Democrat. Republican State Senator Sandy Senn defeated Democrat Sam Skardon in 2018 in the 41st Senate District by a mere 1500 votes. Lin Bennett won the 114th House District in 2020 by a little more than 2000 votes. And Republican Mandy Kimmons represents the 97th House district, which was traditionally Democratic until 2018. These districts should all be in play with slight changes in districting.

The Trifecta will, of course, try to draw lines that make it tough to realize any Democratic gains despite the increasingly Blue composition of the state's electorate. The courts are very unlikely to come to the aid of South Carolina Democrats if they think the new maps are crooked. That strategy was tried in 2010, without success, and the current Supreme Court of the United States has made it very clear it is not interested in hearing cases of legislative gerrymandering.

Which brings us back to Hamlet: to crack or to pack?

It used to be Democratic Party strategy to help guarantee at least some Black representation in Congress and the Statehouse by "packing" Black voters into a few districts. The old assumption was that Whites would not vote for Black candidates, so for a Black candidate to win, it required large numbers of Black voters in the district.

Packing worked, but (and it's a big but) it meant that Black influence at the polls was concentrated in a few areas. White voters dominated everywhere else.

Packing, however, is looking increasingly problematic as an elective strategy for Democrats and Black voters because it actually dilutes Black influence.

Clearly Whites now do vote for Black candidates. As The Wall Street Journal recently reported in an article titled "Black Leaders Want to Rethink Drawing of House Districts," 14 Black Democrats in 2018 won House seats in majority-white or plurality-white districts. White voters turned out for Senator Raphael Warnock in Georgia, for Attorney General Keith Ellison in Minnesota, and for Barack Obama twice.

Joe Grant, deputy director of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, was quoted in that same WSJ article saying there is now evidence "that you can have the election of a Black candidate without having super-Black districts."

Bakari Sellers, a former member of the South Carolina House, believes that unpacking Black voters from Jim Clyburn's Sixth Congressional District seat might help elect Democrats to seats around Charleston and Columbia, yet still retain the Sixth District for a Black Democrat.

The Republican Trifecta will try not to deliver new voter maps that help Democrats. But how will they achieve that? By continuing to pack, or to crack? What do Democrats prefer? How can they articulate that so as to impact the process? That is the question both parties should be debating now as the redistricting process rolls along.

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