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SC House agrees to adjust voting lines in 5 counties to settle lawsuit

Redistricting South Carolina (copy) (copy)

South Carolina Rep. Jay Jordan, R-Florence, explains the recommendations of his committee that handled redistricting of the state House seats on Dec. 2, 2021, in Columbia. The House reached a settlement  May 5, 2022, with the American Civil Liberties Union on the new lines. File/Jeffrey Collins/AP

COLUMBIA — The South Carolina House has agreed to adjust district lines in five counties, to take effect with the 2024 elections, to settle allegations its newly drawn election maps discriminated against Black voters.

But the May 5 settlement announced by the American Civil Liberties Union requires legislators to move quickly to pass a new law with the altered maps. Just three days remain in the regular legislative session. 

The law necessary to resolve that part of the federal lawsuit will change the lines of state House seats representing parts of Orangeburg, Richland, Kershaw, Dillon and Horry counties.      

The agreement means Black voters in those areas "will have a greater chance of electing their preferred candidates," said Brenda Murphy, president of the South Carolina branch of the NAACP, which filed the lawsuit with the ACLU. 

The groups continue to contest the new congressional lines. The settlement doesn't touch their challenges to the U.S. House maps.   

What it addresses are allegations that the state House maps approved in December intentionally gerrymandered 29 of the chamber's 124 districts to dilute the voting power of Black voters. This year's elections will continue under those maps. 

The biggest change for 2024 will be in lower Richland and Kershaw counties.

As approved in December, the redrawn maps combined the districts of Reps. Wendy Brawley and Jermaine Johnson, who both live in rural Hopkins.

The agreement puts their homes back into separate districts, both of which will start in lower Richland and extend into Kershaw County in a shape that's roughly a backward "L" — District 52 will include Elgin, while District 70 will pick up Lugoff and Camden.

But in the meantime, the Democrats will compete against each other in next month's primary to represent a District 70 that stops at the county line.

"It's certainly a better opportunity for the people of Lower Richland and Richland County to have two representatives for the rural part of our county than just one," Brawley told The Post and Courier, noting it's what she fought for unsuccessfully on the House floor. "Unfortunately, because the timing is what it is … we will run in the way the maps are drawn now."

Other changes include keeping the city of Orangeburg whole within one district, as Rep. Jerry Govan tried to do during floor debate in December, when the shifting of lines due to population changes also put him in a district with a fellow Democrat. Rather than seek reelection to the House, Govan is running for state superintendent.   

The House's attorney for the redistricting case, Mark Moore, said the settlement "will end costly litigation with a decision that is reasonable for voters" and allows confidence in the process. 

"Certainly, our voting process is one of the greatest virtues we have in South Carolina — and trust in that process is of crucial importance to our people," he said.  

In South Carolina, each chamber is responsible for redrawing their own district lines every decade to adjust for population changes recorded by the census. Critics complain the process results in legislators picking their voters instead of the other way around. 

"Any redistricting map that arises exclusively from self-interested politicians will inevitably fail voters," said Allen Chaney, legal director of the ACLU South Carolina. "While I am certainly pleased by this settlement, the voters need the next South Carolina redistricting process to be more independent, transparent, and accountable."

House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford countered there was nothing to fix with the state House lines. 

"I never saw any evidence of any racial intent of any of the lines," said the Columbia Democrat, noting he wasn't consulted in any of the settlement negotiations. "I'm not seeing what it accomplished, but if it allowed the ACLU and NAACP to pat themselves on the back, I guess it was a good thing."  

With so little time left in the regular session, the House needs to shortcut the normal process for a new bill. The agreement calls for the chamber to do that by attaching the new maps to a bill about Horry County voting precincts that passed the Senate unanimously in March and is already on the House calendar for floor debate.

That way, the House can quickly pass and return the bill to the Senate with the changes. Another vote in that chamber to concur would send it to McMaster's desk before the gavel falls on the regular session at 5 p.m. May 12, as per state law.

If that doesn't happen, the settlement is moot.      

The sides first reached a deal with the new lines last month. But a three-judge federal panel rejected it, saying the negotiating House leaders lacked the authority to approve the changes on their own.

During an April 26 conference, the court indicated the proper way to resolve the dispute would be to get the approval of both chambers and McMaster, following the same process as the challenged maps. 

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.

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