Southern elections lose drama amid redrawn lines

Former U.S. Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga.

Perhaps the best way to explain the increasing lack of political drama in South Carolina’s partisan elections is to look at what happened across the border in Georgia last year.

Democratic U.S. Rep. John Barrow had spent 10 years in Congress and was well-liked. But as the last white Democrat in the Deep South, the Augusta lawmaker became a target of Republicans nationally.

On Election Day 2014, he was thumped by their candidate, businessman Rick Allen, who collected 55 percent of the vote in a district that had been redrawn in 2011 to favor the GOP.

While multiple factors played a role in Barrow’s loss, some of the root factors began years earlier from what some say was a consequence of the Voting Rights Act: less drama and more safe-party seats.

On the surface, the act, which turns 50 this week, greatly assisted black voters who had been systematically disenfranchised from voting through discriminatory hurdles, such as literacy tests and poll taxes. But it also became another contributor to how legislative lines are redrawn by statehouses and racial politics endure.

As Republicans became the political majority across the South, majority GOP seats became one norm, as did majority black seats as the U.S. Department of Justice wanted to ensure. Those favoring white Democrats, such as Barrow, began to shrink.

The offshoot today is that in states such as Georgia, South Carolina and elsewhere in the South, most all of the drama is gone from November politics.

“Whether there’s a name on the ballot or not, the districts are drawn in a way that you don’t really have a choice,” Common Cause Georgia Executive Director William Perry said last year about the impact of Barrow’s loss. “We’re really in a system where the voters don’t pick the elected officials, but the officials pick the voters.”

The Voting Rights of 1965 was part of the civil rights reform package President Lyndon Johnson successfully pushed through Congress after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Drawing support from the negative treatment of blacks in the South and the rise of the civil rights movement, another feature of the act was that mandated states must submit any changes in voting laws or procedures to the Justice Department for clearance. That included redrawing of legislative district lines.

South Carolina, for example, has seven congressional districts, one of which is considered “safe” Democrat. It’s the black majority 6th District held by U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn since 1992. The other six are deemed “safe” Republican, and most have been that way since the 1990s.

University of South Carolina political scientist Todd Shaw said the fact there’s a lack of competitive races during elections shouldn’t be seen as a fault of the act, since it was written to right wrongs at the ballot box .

“The act’s guarantee was to give some leverage to underrepresented citizens and ensuring that deciding ‘one person, one vote’ was meaningful,” he said. The idea that legislatures would begin drawing “majority-minority” districts that sometimes led to packing voters into districts, came later, he said.

“It was not the Act itself that did that,” Shaw said. “It’s the way the act was interpreted that brought about these changes.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.