COLUMBIA — House Republicans voted to advance proposed congressional maps that would turn the competitive Lowcountry district held by U.S. Rep. Nancy Mace into a safe Republican seat.
The proposal, which passed the House Judiciary Committee on partisan lines Jan. 10, is a recrafting of a previous House map that kept Mace’s 1st Congressional District — previously one of the more competitive districts in the country — winnable by Republicans and Democrats alike.
The proposal mirrors a Senate proposal that was blasted by critics for being drawn along racial and partisan lines. It also lays the groundwork for a likely legal challenge by groups that believe the maps will marginalize the Black vote.
Redistricting Committee Chairman Rep. Jay Jordan, R-Florence, largely downplayed those concerns, saying the proposed map closely resembles current district boundaries that keep the Lowcountry’s Beaufort County — which leans Republican — within District 1.
Democrats lambasted the proposed maps, accusing House Republicans of downplaying the concerns of voters in Charleston against those in more rural, Republican-leaning areas of the state. Specifically, the plan proposes to swap red precincts into Mace’s district and increase the share of Black voters in U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn’s 6th District, which leans heavily Democratic.
“We have been cracked so much and packed so much that we don't have a voice in all but one particular congressional district,” Rep. John King, D-Rock Hill, who is Black, said during Monday’s hearing.
“It seems to me if we're looking at the percentage of African Americans and minorities in this state, we would at least have an opportunity to have a voice in more than just one particular congressional district," he added. "It was politics at best that has played into the drawing of this map to ensure that for the next 10 years Black folk only have a voice in one particular district.”
The redistricting process is conducted every decade to ensure congressional district boundaries reflect population growth and shifts seen in the U.S. Census. Over the last 10 years, South Carolina added nearly 500,000 people, for a growth rate of 10.7 percent, with a significant share of the expansion along the coast.
Population growth in the Lowcountry has been explosive in recent years — something state Rep. Weston J. Newton, R-Bluffton, says makes it necessary to divide the region to keep populations consistent between the state's seven congressional districts.
While some in Charleston, including former U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, have advocated to keep Charleston and North Charleston whole under the congressional re-draw, Newton said he believed the interests of voters in Beaufort — particularly in regard to issues like offshore drilling and tourism — more resembled those of greater Charleston than North Charleston.
He noted North Charleston counts a large Black population and shares borders with similar communities in and around Columbia where Clyburn resides.
Some members of the committee said they believed the politics behind the maps has created lines that would mathematically keep Democrats from holding office, contending also that the process was conducted on a timeline that made it difficult for members of the public to voice their concerns.
Other Democrats argued the plan treated voters of colors to a different standard than those in districts with Whiter populations, and questioned why a second map was necessary.
“Who's to say that their input isn't more important or less important?” King said. “I don't see where the bar is set to where the information, feedback, input that is given has risen to the level to where we draw an additional map.”
Jordan downplayed the role of partisanship or race in the drawing of the maps, saying the reasons for the proposed district lines were practical. But partisanship and race seeped deeply into the tone of Monday’s hearings.
Before the House Judiciary Committee began its debate on the maps, King argued the committee was meeting in violation of House rules after Newton was named acting chair in place of Rep. Chris Murphy, R-North Charleston. House rules state that when chair is absent the 1st vice chair — in this case, King — serve as chair.
And while King pressed Republican lawmakers on perceptions of racial “packing,” Jordan downplayed the role of race, saying the lines were drawn solely on the request of voters in Beaufort.
“Once we proposed the alternate plan and took hearing testimony on it, we did hear from folks in Charleston that expressed displeasure with it,” Jordan said. “I would say that it was not to the same number-wise, the volume wasn't quite as high perhaps, but it did exist.”
The alternative map would still likely face legal opposition in the courts if passed by the full House. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit challenging the proposal’s legality shortly after its release, while House Republicans have already begun preparing to defend its plans in court.
The Associated Press reported earlier that members of House Republican leadership are attempting to remove the judge presiding over that case, arguing U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel could not fairly consider the case due to his work on prior redistricting cases.
Jordan, the redistricting committee chairman, defended the committee’s maps and the process in which they were released, saying that the timeline the committee followed in releasing the maps were due largely to delays in the release of census data caused by COVID-19.
And the maps they voted on, he said, would withstand legal scrutiny, based closely on a plan that had previously received an approving nod from the U.S. Department of Justice a decade prior.
“I think we can legally rely on it,” Jordan said. “It was good enough then, and we've got some basis legally to stand on to say it shouldn't be solid legal footing at this juncture.”
Both the S.C. House and S.C. Senate plans will now proceed through the full House of Representatives.