Last week, the S.C. League of Women Voters unveiled its proposals for new election districts for the S.C. Senate, S.C. House and U.S. House, based on 2020 census numbers. This is noteworthy not because we expect the Legislature will adopt those proposals but because these are the first maps we’ve seen.
Even more noteworthy is when we’ll see proposals from the House and Senate subcommittees charged with drawing the new districts that will be used in the 2022 elections: We have no idea.
About all we know for sure at this point is that the Senate will not return to work Oct. 12, as initially planned, to debate a redistricting proposal; Senate President Harvey Peeler canceled that session last week. And the House won’t debate redistricting until at least December.
That timeline — or rather, that lack of a timeline — is a problem because the longer it takes to adopt the new district lines, the less likely it is that candidates will be able to mount serious challenges to incumbent legislators; when incumbents are reelected, it should be because the voters prefer these lawmakers, not because they managed to stack the deck against other candidates willing to challenge them. Delays even raise the possibility that the 2022 elections could be held using the current districts, which are based on population numbers that are now 12 years old; that’s because a judge could enjoin the use of the new districts in response to a lawsuit, and a lawsuit can’t be filed until after the Legislature passes the new district plans.
It’s one thing for Charleston and other municipalities that hold elections this year to use those old maps: The Census Bureau, after all, didn’t release the new population numbers until August, and filing had to close for municipal elections just days afterward. It’s quite another to use old districts for elections that won’t be held until June 2022.
Legislators point out that it takes a lot of time to redraw election districts because of the political and legal minefields they can trigger, and that’s true. It’s also true that the census numbers were delayed this year and that there wasn’t much point in the Senate convening next week when its redistricting panel gave the public until this Friday to submit proposals.
True too that it’s a lot harder for the Legislature to agree on voting districts than a nonprofit advocacy group that’s made up of like-minded people.
The League of Women Voters took care to do the sort of things legislators are supposed to do: balancing the traditional redistricting criteria (creating compact and contiguous districts that respect county, city and other voting lines and trying to preserve “communities of interest”) with the legal need to avoid reducing the number of districts where African Americans or other minorities have an opportunity to elect candidates of their choice.
But the League didn't have to get a majority of legislators to support its maps, so it didn't have to look out for the interests of incumbents in the majority party or the minority party — both of which tend to get taken care of in district-redrawing exercises. Nor did it have to find a way to increase the number of Republicans (or Democrats) who get elected, as legislators believe they have to do.
That explains why it takes the Legislature longer to draw maps and what’s so backward about the way the Legislature draws maps.
But just because we understand why the Legislature won’t pass a redistricting bill before December — and very well might not pass one until January, or later — doesn’t mean the timeline is OK. It certainly isn’t OK when lawmakers aren't in the middle of a regular legislative session, when they need to juggle drawing districts with passing a budget and writing laws to improve our schools and protect the environment and clean up problems in our criminal justice system and keep us safe during a pandemic.
One thing we know — because we’ve seen this on issue after issue, including previous district-drawing exercises — is that the Legislature can move quickly when it decides it must. That’s what it needs to do now.
Redistricting subcommittees should be meeting weekly or even daily to get districts drawn and adopt plans to present to the full House and Senate in the next few weeks. If that’s inconvenient for legislators on the subcommittees, they should resign; they knew they would be under deadline pressure — or that they should be under deadline pressure — when they agreed to serve on those panels.
The only legitimate reason we can think of for the full Senate and House not to convene later this month or the first of November is if they consider that too dangerous in the middle of a pandemic. And if that's their concern, they need to convene immediately — to rescind the law they passed this spring in an effort to prevent school districts from keeping our schools safe by requiring students and teachers to wear masks.