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Statehouse in Columbia, SC, on Wednesday, June 24, 2015. Lauren Prescott/Staff

COLUMBIA — Between candidate recruitment for the 2018 midterm elections and protests over the GOP tax bill, South Carolina Democrats also are educating their base about a less immediate concern: the importance of redistricting.

Top Republicans stand ready to defend the party's longtime dominance in state politics and the map-drawing process. Advocacy groups are enlisting reform-minded lawmakers of both parties in an unlikely bid to change the whole system. Well-funded national start-ups are building legal teams to assist with potential court challenges.

Three years before the 2020 census results trigger new legislative redistricting, battle lines are already being drawn in the Palmetto State, as an array of organizations take preliminary steps to prepare for what is inevitably set to be another contentious fight.

Most efforts at this early stage are focused on engaging the public about the process so that voters are paying attention once the process starts.

Several nonpartisan groups — including the League of Women Voters, NAACP, AARP and Conservation Voters of South Carolina — have begun holding forums around the state pressing the issue.

Lynn Teague of the S.C. League of Women Voters said the group is working with experts who have been closely involved in previous rounds of redistricting. They are currently focused on training volunteers to give presentations across the state.

"People often think that having the technical expertise is the hard part of this; it isn't," Teague said. "The hard part is getting the public engaged and telling their legislators that they will not stand for anything but a fair process."

At a recent state Democratic Party conference in Columbia, legal experts briefed party activists on the intricacies of redistricting and the potential opportunities to challenge future maps.

The efforts may get a boost from prominent national figures, too. Barack Obama has singled out redistricting reform as one of the foremost political issues of his post-presidential life. He teamed up with his his former Attorney General Eric Holder to create the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.

Democratic operatives in South Carolina say the state is not currently a priority for Obama's organization, but the effort has significant resources to play a role all over the country in the lead-up to 2021 and in the litigation battles that are sure to follow.

While most politicians in the state are only just beginning to ramp up their 2018 campaigns, let alone looking as far ahead as 2021, some are hoping to raise the issue's profile in the upcoming legislative session.

Two Republican and two Democratic lawmakers — Reps. Gary Clary, R-Clemson; Laurie Funderburk, D-Camden; Beth Bernstein, D-Columbia; and Jason Elliott, R-Greenville — have pre-filed legislation to create an independent commission for future redistricting.

The commission would consist of seven members: Two selected by the House, two selected by the Senate, two by the governor and then a seventh chosen by the original six. To avoid partisanship, each of the two members from the House, Senate and governor would need to be from different parties.

The effort has some supporters in both parties but detractors in both, too.

"It doesn't have to do with party, it has to do with self-preservation," Clary said.

Tyler Jones, who was a top adviser for the House Democratic Caucus during the last round of redistricting, created the Fair Lines for South Carolina Project earlier this year in attempt to pressure lawmakers to take a stance on an independent commission.

The group has collected 54 responses so far out of the 170 lawmakers in the Statehouse. Jones said more aggressive efforts will launch in 2018.

"2021 is right around the corner, so I don't want much grass to grow around our feet before we really start to do this," he said.

Veterans of past redistricting battles say the real tussling won't begin until the census data arrives at the General Assembly, scheduled for April 2021. But early groundwork can allow parties to hit the ground running.

"There is absolutely the ability to anticipate and prepare for this," said Chris Kenney, an attorney at the law firm of former state Democratic Party chairman Dick Harpootlian, who worked on a legal challenge to the 2011 maps.

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What the 2011 process showed, Kenney said, is that Republicans had a cohesive strategy to move through the process efficiently.

"On the Democratic side in 2011, it was chaos," Kenney said. "There were a handful of members who recognized what was going on, stood up and said this is wrong... But they were alone. There was no institutional push or organizational direction."

After the 2010 census, the state added a seventh U.S. House seat, but experts do not expect the size of South Carolina’s delegation to gain an eighth seat this time, given current growth rates.

Many Democrats argue the 2011 maps reduced the number of competitive Statehouse districts to single digits, shielding incumbents from credible general election challenges and allowing them to focus exclusively on primary races.

At the congressional level, U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn has complained that his district is excessively packed with the state's black voters, ensuring the remaining six seats are safely Republican.

In 2014 statewide elections, then-Gov. Nikki Haley garnered 55 percent of the vote. But Republicans won 63 percent of State House seats and 86 percent of the congressional seats. 

Before any strategists get too far ahead in their 2021 game plans, all are watching closely for a Supreme Court decision that could shake up the rules.

The court heard arguments in a case challenging Wisconsin's maps, Gill v. Whitford, in October. Though the court has already set limits on racial gerrymandering, the Wisconsin case offers an unprecedented opportunity for the court to create a test for excessive political partisan gerrymandering, too.

Legal experts walked away from those arguments unsure where Justice Anthony Kennedy, the likely swing vote, would fall. While Kennedy sounded perturbed by the influence of partisan gerrymandering on the political process, he also did not appear convinced that a clear test could be instituted to curb it.

But the unlikelihood that lawmakers in most states would voluntarily vote to give up their redistricting power played into oral arguments.

"Politicians are never going to fix gerrymandering. They like gerrymandering," said attorney Paul Smith when Justice Neil Gorsuch asked if anything is preventing Congress from taking action. "The problem in this area is if you don't do it, it's locked up."

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina statehouse and congressional delegation. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.