Redrawing Political Lines Is Best Hope For Better Legislature
August 31, 2017
By Andy Brack | Contributing Writer
State lawmakers have the power to alter the way the legislature works to make it more representative of all South Carolina and, in turn, boost the potential for compromise and better outcomes for taxpayers.
But to do so, they’ll have to do something that’s very hard – hold their egos and political futures in check by redrawing district lines that are more competitive and less self-serving.
The current legislative system is stacked against white Democrats and black Republicans because of gerrymandering, the political game played every 10 years when state lawmakers redraw district lines to make them reflect shifts in population following a new census. The next national population tally will be taken in 2020.
The biggest problem in redistricting, also known as reapportionment, is human nature: Incumbents want to draw “safe districts” so that they’ll get reelected. Over the years as the state’s politics has shifted from a Democratic majority to a Republican one, this has meant that white Republican leaders have kept the status quo – majority white districts favoring Republicans – or have made these white districts whiter. In turn, this practice often concentrates black voters into “majority black districts,” or districts in which a majority of registered voters is black, which essentially ensures a black lawmaker is elected for that seat. Of the 170 legislators in the Statehouse, only one is a black Republican.
So the reality is that districts with a majority of white voters gets whiter, which favors Republicans, and the remaining black districts elect Democrats. As a result, the system bolsters the status quo – a mostly white General Assembly that plays lip service to diversity.
What needs to happen is all districts need to be examined for how they can best represent people based on geography, not politics. In the Lowcountry, that may mean more legislative districts in which the percentage of voters in a district mirrors the black and white populations of an area, not an artificially construed district to ensure the election of a black or white lawmaker.
Currently, more than 90 percent of South Carolina’s legislative districts are non-competitive, according to a past analysis by Statehouse Report. That means there is generally one major party candidate or the numbers for one party’s candidates are so favorable that voters in most districts don’t have much of a choice in the November election. Why? Because it’s hard for incumbents to give up their advantages. Similarly, it’s hard for political parties to give up their advantages in districts they’ve held for years.
This kind of gerrymandering is bad for governance. It allows parties to focus on narrow, skewed social issues. It fosters a system that ignores big problems and solutions, such as a common agenda for South Carolina to fix roads, schools, health care and the like.
Rather than creating majority black districts or overwhelmingly white districts, the General Assembly needs to focus on districts that reflect an area’s diversity. A case in point: Years ago, I ran for Congress in a coastal district where about 30 percent of the residents were black. But the congressional seat was drawn in such a way that only 18 percent of the voters were black. A neighboring congressional district had a similar percentage of black residents, but a black voting percentage of more than 50 percent.
In that seat, year after year, a Democratic candidate generally got about 35 percent to 40 percent of the vote. I got 38 percent of the vote. If the district, however, had been drawn to reflect the actual population, it would have been about 30 percent black – a boost of about 12 percentage points overall. Had those voters been in the district, there’s a chance I could have put together a black and white coalition of supporters and polled 50 percent. In other words, drawing the lines to reflect diversity would have made the congressional seat competitive.
Want a better Statehouse? Stop letting incumbents bend the results of the census in their favor. Pressure them to ensure redistricting occurs like it is supposed to. Start working now with an advocacy group to invest in the software to show politicians how maps can be drawn to be fairer and better – and then hold their feet to the fire.
Andy Brack is editor and publisher of Statehouse Report. Have a comment?
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