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SC Senate passes new US House districts with minimal changes

Redistricting-South Carolina
Jeffrey Collins/AP
/
AP
State Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Columbia, compares his proposed map of U.S. House districts drawn with 2020 U.S. Census data to a plan supported by Republicans on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022, in Columbia, S.C.. The full Senate was debating the maps. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

The South Carolina Senate approved a new map for the state's U.S. House seats on Thursday, making minimal changes to the current seven districts of which all but one reliably elect Republicans.

Senators voted 26-15 vote for passage strictly along party lines. The vote likely shut the door on any significant changes to the districts, which Democrats and civic groups say unfairly amplifies Republican power and pulls apart communities to dilute minority strength into just one district.

The basic templates for South Carolina's congressional districts were drawn after the 1990 U.S. Census when the state created a district with a majority of minority voters and also ended up making the remaining districts more Republican. The only significant change since then happened after 2010 when the state added a seventh district, but kept the rest of the districts as similar as possible.

With Republicans holding a 6-1 advantage in U.S. House seats, there was little desire among their members to make significant changes beyond balancing out the 500,000 people South Carolina added in the past decade.

"What we heard overall was people like the way they've got it. Don't fix what isn't broken," said Sen. Luke Rankin, the Myrtle Beach Republican who ran the Senate's redistricting work.

Every new district would retain at least 82% of its previous voters, while five of them remain at least 94% the same, said Sen. Chip Campsen, a Republican from the Isle of Palms.

The loudest complaints about the new map came from those upset that Charleston and North Charleston continue to be in different districts. Opponents also said extra voters likely to choose Republicans were put into the coastal 1st District, which had a 38-year run of Republican U.S. representatives before the seat flipped in 2018 to a Democrat for one term.

Campsen said mapmakers worked to ease those concerns. The voters in the new 1st District cast 54% of their ballots for former Republican President Donald Trump in 2020, up just one percentage point from the 2010 map. The 6th District, represented by Democratic U.S. Rep Jim Clyburn, has its percentage of Black people old enough to vote drop from 51% now to 46%.

"This plan is a minimal change plan," Campsen said.

Critics of the map passed Thursday said just because the districts have basically remained the same over the past 30 years and received federal and court approval when needed doesn't mean they are fair and good.

"If you pack everybody who looks like each other and who thinks like each other in the same congressional district, guess what? The congressperson does not have to listen to the voices of the few," said Rep. Marlon Kimpson, a Democrat from Charleston.

Another map proposed Thursday by Sen. Dick Harpootlian would have evened out minority voters across several districts. It creates two districts where majorities picked Democrat Joe Biden over Trump in 2020, and a third in which Trump won by less than six percentage points.

That proposal would radically change all seven of South Carolina's U.S. House districts. The 6th district, currently represented by Democrat U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, would no longer run from Charleston to Columbia, instead staying much closer to Columbia. That would allow much of the Charleston area to stay in the 1st District, a goal of civic groups like the League of Women Voters.

Harpootlian said one of the key reasons he ran for the Senate in 2018 was to do what he could to stop drawing district lines to separate whites and Blacks. He said he expects the districts to be found unfair by federal judges and the state will again need help to do the right thing

"It's just a shame to me that we will be embarrassed once again," Harpootlian said.

Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey said the approved map followed all guidelines and Harpootlian' s criticism was unfair.

"We have not bleached the 1st District. We have not packed more African-Americans into the 6th. It has been the opposite," the Republican from Edgefield said.

The Senate also rejected four other maps proposed by Democrats and one by a Republican.

The Senate plan has minor differences from a map passed by the House last week, so House members can either approve the Senate plan or allow a conference committee to work out the differences. Florence Republican Rep. Jay Jordan, who handled House redistricting said members will have to look at the details, but the closer the plans are to each other, the easier that will be.

That will move action into the federal courts since a lawsuit over the districts is almost certain.

The General Assembly already passed new maps for state House and Senate seats, and the state is currently being sued over the South Carolina House plan.

A federal judge in that lawsuit denied Republican lawmakers' request that he recuse himself from a group of judges hearing the case.

The Republicans had argued that U.S. District Court Judge Richard Gergel couldn't fairly consider the challenge in part because he was a lawyer in 2000 who argued against the state's maps during that redistricting.

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Meg Kinnard contributed to this report.