As South Carolina’s lawmakers prepare to draw election districts based on the latest U.S. Census data, Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter is calling for more transparency and public input in the process.
"South Carolina is the only state in the union that does not have actual legislation that governs the redistricting process here in South Carolina. What that means is while the process has been gerrymandered around the country – and we're all familiar with that – it is even more egregious here in South Carolina because there are no rules that are in statute that the General Assembly is bound to live by,” Cobb-Hunter said.
The Orangeburg Democrat and Rep. Mike Fanning, D-Fairfield, have proposed the Fairness, Accountability and Integrity Act to change the way the process works.
“We have absolutely no expectation that this legislation is going to pass because what we're proposing, quite frankly, is revolutionary here in South Carolina. What we are proposing is that people pick the politician rather than the politician pick the people. What our legislation does is allow that to happen,” Cobb-Hunter said.
She continued, “What we see here in South Carolina is the result of what happens when there are not competitive elections. Here in our state, the person who is going to serve in the House or the Senate is usually determined by the primary.
“There are very few, if any, competitive races in November. From our perspective, democracy suffers when that is the case. We need to do something about this, and the time for doing it has passed.”
Fanning said transparency is important in drawing district lines.
“No one is talking about the fact that South Carolina has no laws governing our process. So if citizens aren't in charge of it like in other states, if politicians are in charge of it, then at least we ought to have laws that the public can look at and make sure that they're holding us accountable for following those legal guidelines for drawing those lines,” he said.
Under their plan, an independent commission would be created to draw district lines.
“There is language in the legislation which will not allow for interference by legislators, by the executive branch. No one who is related to a legislator, or who is affiliated with the executive branch can even serve on the redistricting commission,” Cobb-Hunter said.
House and Senate committees are using the new, 2020 U.S. Census data to draw maps for the 46 state Senate districts, 124 state House districts and seven U.S. House districts.
Cobb-Hunter and Fanning said their legislation would help set, for example, timelines for starting the process of drawing the maps.
“Quite frankly, we don't know when maps will be drawn, presented, voted on, (or) adopted by the House. There is no set timeline. Initially we were told, ‘Well, we're going to do it in September when we come back.’ Now we're hearing, ‘Well, we're just going to deal with the money, perhaps, in September, and we'll deal with redistricting in October.’ My point is that's the point of the legislation,” Cobb-Hunter said.
Both the House and Senate have held public hearings across the state. House Committee Chairman Jay Jordan, R-Florence, has said that the House is waiting for the final Census data at the end of the month to make sure it matches preliminary data released in August.
Cobb-Hunter, however, said there has been an “undercount in so many communities,” not to mention the impact that COVID-19 pandemic has had on reporting.
She believes larger population differences should be allowed between districts when they are drawn.
“Quite frankly, one of the things that the Progressive Network and the Progressive Caucus is looking at is trying to get the deviation increased. We had a 5 percent deviation forever," Cobb-Hunter said.
"There is nothing in statute that says it has to be 5 percent. There is nothing in the Constitution that says it has to be 5 percent. The percent of the deviation is decided by the members of the General Assembly. Quite frankly, we believe very strongly that we need to be looking at at least a 10 percent deviation to address the fall-off, the loss of population in rural South Carolina in particular," she said.
Cobb-Hunter said the legislation could likely impact majority-minority districts in the state.
“Some of them are already affected by the loss in population. For example, right here in Orangeburg County, we have had a significant loss in population. So there are going to have to be some real changes to this district,” Cobb-Hunter said.
She continued, “I was in the Legislature when most, if not all, of these new majority-minority districts were created. So there will be a reckoning, shall we say, with having to back up on some of that. Quite frankly, I'm of the opinion that that was not a wise thing to do necessarily because what it does is allow politicians to just focus on one little group.
“While I represent a majority black district, I would like to think that I have a kind of view that is inclusive of all South Carolinians. There might likely be a loss of some of those districts. I'm not sure, but I believe, quite frankly, that a district that is 55 percent is more than winnable for a person of color. I have never supported the notion of districts being 65, 70 percent.”
Ultimately, the legislator said that, “what you're going to find is that Black legislators are just like white legislators.”
“They don't want to give up the seats, they don't want to give up what they perceive as power. So that's why it is critical that the state of South Carolina join the other 49 states and create … guidelines, codifying them so that years from now, everybody will know what the rules are and we'll all be playing by the same rules, hopefully,” Cobb-Hunter said.
She continued “The bottom line for all of this for me is that we have gotten to a place not just in South Carolina, but in this country, where power rules and power is all that is important.
“What we know here in South Carolina is that when you have power and you don’t have transparency and accountability, then you are looking at opportunities for corruption.”