South Carolina Congressional Districts

South Carolina's seven congressional districts were drawn in 2011, but there is debate over whether state lawmakers should be in charge over drawing the lines after 2020. South Carolina Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office/Provided 

COLUMBIA — Some state lawmakers want to create a new commission to redraw the state's legislative and congressional districts after 2020, setting the stage for a debate over gerrymandering and whether the Republican-led Legislature should be in charge of divvying up voters.

A group of senators and representatives filed several pieces of legislation last week that would give South Carolinians the ability to choose whether state lawmakers or a commission made up of nine other people draw the state's future political boundaries.

Anyone who is or was a lobbyist, a candidate for office, a legislative staffer, an employee of a political party or contributed $2,000 or more to a political candidate in any given year could not serve on the proposed commission.

The goal of the independent body would be to make the seats in the U.S. House and both chambers of the state Legislature more competitive. It would do so by mandating the new districts drawn after the U.S. Census in 2020 are geographically compact and not twisted and contorted into odd shapes to ensure one party has the advantage.

The newly proposed legislation would pose the question of who should draw the district lines to voters in a referendum on the 2020 ballot. But first, the bill must pass the Statehouse.

One of the bill's sponsors, Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Columbia, doesn't expect that to happen.

"I don't think it will get passed," said Harpootlian, a former state Democratic Party chairman, who gained office this year in a special election. "This legislation points out to voters who care that there is a better way to do this."

"Nobody gives up power willingly. So this is a gesture, though not totally useless," said Harpootlian, who sued the state over the state's redistricting plan after 2011.

Many other lawmakers who want to change how district lines are drawn are Democrats, whose party has been the minority in Columbia for decades.

But there are Republicans throwing their support behind a commission too, including Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort. 

Davis is fed up with the way the system is working. He thinks gerrymandering is undermining people's trust in the country's democratic system of government and doesn't want voters to believe the system is "rigged."

"There is almost a conflict of interest to have state legislators drawing lines that determine how they are going to run for reelection," Davis said.

The main goal, Davis said, is to include average citizens in the redistricting process. That's why he is backing the referendum in 2020 and the rules about who can sit on the proposed redistricting commission.

Even with an independent commission drawing district lines, Davis believes Republicans can win based on their platform and the issues they espouse to voters.

"I've never been a big fan of this argument that we need to keep control of this as the General Assembly," Davis said. "That kind of talk really turns me off."

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Reach Andrew Brown at 843-708-1830 or follow him on Twitter @andy_ed_brown.

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