South Carolina sued over newly drawn state House districts

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South Carolina House members look to see if there are enough votes to table an amendment during a redistricting debate on Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021, in Columbia, S.C. The House overwhelmingly approved its new district lines. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

Two civil rights groups are suing South Carolina, saying the newly drawn state House maps discriminate against Black people by diluting their voting power and again saying lawmakers are taking too long to approve U.S. House maps.

The groups amended an October lawsuit that said the General Assembly was taking too long to pass the maps, preventing potential candidates from researching the new districts and not giving enough time for lawsuits to be considered before the two-week filing period starts March 16.

“Defendants traded one constitutional violation — malapportionment — for two others: racial gerrymandering and intentional racial discrimination,” said court documents filed Thursday by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People with assistance from the American Civil Liberties Union.

South Carolina House members look to see if there are enough votes to table an amendment during a redistricting debate on Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021, in Columbia, S.C. The House overwhelmingly approved its new district lines. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

The lawsuit was anticipated. South Carolina’s maps have been challenged in courts, sometimes successfully, for the past 50 years.

The suit asks a federal judge to find the new House districts passed the General Assembly and signed into law by the governor earlier this month to be unconstitutional and if necessary to delay March filings and June primaries for the 124 seats until fairer districts can be drawn. It also asks the court to set a Feb. 15 deadline for the U.S. House maps to be finished.

The groups said they reserve their right to sue later over the 46 South Carolina Senate districts, which don’t come up for election until 2024.

The lawsuit cites 28 of the 124 House districts where race was used to either exclude or concentrate Black voters in districts to dilute their overall political power.

There are lines that split Anderson into four districts “like a shattered mirror” to prevent Blacks from having enough clout to influence the result in any of the districts, the lawsuit said.

There is the bunny ear that extended into Chester to put Black voters in the city into a Fairfield County district that is already overwhelmingly minority instead of surrounding areas, the NAACP said.

The lawsuit also cites districts in Sumter where it said Black voters were shunted out of Republican Ways and Means Chairman Murrell Smith’s district, as well as areas in Richland County; Orangeburg County; Florence and Williamsburg counties; and in Dillion and Horry counties.

A Confederate flag protester holds a sign before a ceremony where Governor Nikki Haley was to sign a bill removing the Confederate flag from outside the statehouse on July 9, 2015 in Columbia, South Carolina. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Leaders in the state’s Republican-dominated Legislature pointed out they didn’t make significant changes to the districts drawn after the 2010 U.S. Census. Those maps were approved both by judges and under the federal Voting Rights Act — a requirement not needed this time because it was thrown out eight years ago by the US. Supreme Court.

They also said the maps kept more districts where minorities were the majority of voters than plans by the NAACP and other groups.

The NAACP said their plan had more districts where Black voters were 40% to 50% of the population and could influence more elections.

The House maps also were roundly criticized by groups like the South Carolina League of Women Voters, which said the number of general election races where the winning margin is projected to be within 5 percentage points was cut in half to just eight seats — or only 6% of the House.

The group ran a computer program that generated nearly 12 billion possible House maps and found just over 400 had more bias than the one proposed by the chamber.

Still unresolved are maps for the U.S. House. Both chambers have their own proposals. The state Senate’s idea kept the districts similar to the 2010 map, but made the 1st District, which is the only thing approaching a competitive district, more Republican.

The House had a more radical change that would have kept the Charleston area more whole, but backtracked on the proposal before a public meeting scheduled for next Wednesday.

South Carolina added nearly 500,000 people in the 2020 U.S. Census, but that growth was lopsided both geographically toward the coast and the South Carolina suburbs of Charlotte, North Carolina, and racially as the number of people who identified themselves only as African American fell by more than 10,000 people.

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