COLUMBIA — Senators will take public testimony over the next month on how they should redraw South Carolina's voting lines following the census, starting with a hearing in Columbia next week.
The Senate panel in charge of tweaking Senate and congressional district lines to reflect population changes voted unanimously July 20 on a public comment schedule that opens on Statehouse grounds. The last of 10 hearings is set for Aug. 12 at Aiken Technical College.
Senators are looking for input on how to keep communities — to include cities, school districts and neighborhoods — together for representation, said Senate Judiciary Chairman Luke Rankin, R-Myrtle Beach.
"We want to hear they like what they have or they don't like what they have," he said.
All hearings will start at 6:30 p.m., and people will be able to testify in person or virtually.
In South Carolina, legislators have sole authority over drawing their own voting lines. Critics of that process worry districts will be further "cracked" and "packed" — simple descriptions of what happens when gerrymandering splits or concentrates communities to benefit incumbents and their party, nearly guaranteeing incumbency.
The hearings are voters' opportunity to have a say in who is on their ballot for the next decade.
But "the average citizen doesn't realize what redistricting is," said Sen. Margie Bright Matthews, D-Walterboro, who argued the hearings should be scheduled further out to allow more time to educate voters on the meetings and their importance.
"It might be doable and successful, but I don’t think that’s enough time," she said.
She and Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Columbia, did convince their colleagues to flip two dates, putting the more populated Midlands region, where it's easier to advertise quickly, ahead of one of the state's most rural areas.
Orangeburg was initially set for the first meeting, to hear from residents in that county, as well as in Bamberg, Barnwell and Calhoun counties. The flip pushed that hearing to Aug. 9.
"Trying to organize folks in these counties is especially difficult," Harpootlian said.
Rural areas lack daily newspapers as well as access to high-speed internet for online information, the Democratic senators said.
In agreeing to the change, Rankin said there was no reason for the proposed calendar other than precedent, as it followed the flow of previous redistricting schedules.
"We want to be as open as we can be," Rankin said, recognizing that most residents don't understand the process. "This is dry, arcane and dusty. This is not on folks' radar but is incredibly important to them."
Legislators are getting a late start to the decennial process, due to COVID-related delays in the census counts. Legislators will start getting detailed data from the U.S. Census Bureau next month on where the state's population grew and shrank.
The state House redistricting panel has not started its public work yet.
Legislators are expected to approve the new maps in a special session this fall.