One revolution at a time: Let’s reform redistricting

Sue and Jim Rex at the American Party booth at the State Fair last year.

Sue and Jim Rex at the American Party booth at the State Fair last year.

I got this release from the new party that Jim Rex and Oscar Lovelace started here in South Carolina, and it points a way to profound political reform in our state — and then takes its eye off the ball:

The Supreme Court struck a blow against gerrymandering this summer,but the voters in our state (like most) will have to wrestle the power away from the Legislature if we are going to stop them from drawing their own districts once again in 2021 ! Since we have no ballot initiative option in South Carolina, we will need to elect members of the SC House and Senate ( they must all run in 2016 ) who will introduce and pass legislation enabling an Independent Commission to perform this important task .
The article below persuasively points out ,however, that the ultimate remedy to our dysfunctional Congress must also include doing away with single district winner take all elections. It may sound complicated and even a little ” revolutionary “, but it really is neither .
Take a minute to read . You may actually begin to feel optimistic !

Set aside the fact that the release says “we have no ballot initiative option in South Carolina” as though that were a bad thing. (The American Party is much given to populism, and does not share my horror of government by plebiscite.) My objection is that the release mentions one fantastic reform — wresting control of districting from lawmakers, which would accomplish more than anything I can think of to fix our ailing political system. And then it blows right past it and goes on to another, more revolutionary, harder-to-understand “reform,” like a kid who can’t spare the time to play with one shiny toy before being beguiled by another.

The reason this is a problem (after all, you think, aren’t two reforms better than one) is that the first reform, which I know could have a dramatic, positive effect on our state and nation, is practically impossible to achieve. Most sensible people would even say it is impossible. But don’t say that to me in the same summer when we got the Confederate flag down.

It might, just might, be possible, if there is a huge push for it, and those pushing never let up or get distracted, and everything, but everything, breaks the right way. It would require every ounce of passion, attention and commitment that every true reformer in the state possesses, and then some. And the odds would still be way against it.

Gerrymandering is something that not everyone understands, but it can be explained to most people that lawmakers having the power to draw districts to ensure their own re-election (or the election of people of their own party) is a bad thing. Explain a little more, and they might understand that such redistricting is probably the one factor that does the most to drive hyperpartisanship, and to drive both parties away from the sensible center toward extremes. They might also pick up on the fact that drawing districts primarily by the race of voters is merely a milder version of the ethnic cleansing we disapproved of so strongly in the Balkans.

And if you can get the people behind it, and make it clear that this is of the utmost importance to a significant number of their constituents — a big, big, if — you might have a chance of turning redistricting over to an independent commission. (Then, of course, there’s another minefield in making sure the commission is both truly independent and has the savvy to draw better lines than we have now.)

Since we know this would be of the utmost benefit to the republic, why not start a movement that concentrates on redistricting? Then, when you accomplish that miracle, you can get fancy and talk about ranked choice voting.


13 thoughts on “One revolution at a time: Let’s reform redistricting

  1. Lynn Teague

    Yup, getting the redistricting process out of the hands of legislators would be a HUGE move forward. However, Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter is about the only one to point out regularly that it isn’t just the party in power that likes it the way it is, it is the entire General Assembly. Every legislator, regardless of party, got there under the current wretched system, so they think it works fine for them personally. Too bad if it is harmful to the citizens of the state, or even to their own party.

    1. clark surratt

      Lynn, this is a great point you make about what Rep. Gilda says. Suppose a commission, or even the Legislature, comes up with a plan that ends up reducing the number of black lawmakers? Suppose Jim Clyburn’s district was remade to the extent he could lose his seat in heavy GOP voting year?. Where does that leave folks who want to “reform” districting. I would like to hear more on the practical outcomes of reform.

  2. Brad Warthen Post author

    Maybe it needs to get MORE partisan for Democrats to wake up. Maybe if Republicans stop respecting incumbent Democrats’ prerogatives at all, and start drawing two or more Democrats into a district at a time, they’ll turn against the system.

    But that’s not likely to happen. I’m not an expert on this, but it seems to me that you have to have a certain number of Democratic districts for the Republicans’ seats to be as safe as they want them to be. After all, almost a third of the state’s voters are black, and the Republicans certain don’t want all those black votes in THEIR districts…

    Anyway, even if Democrats wanted reform, would we get it? No….

  3. clark surratt

    Brad, as you suggest, redistricting is a raw political game of numbers. Would a reform commission used racial demographics to draw districts? If you started with today’s safe black districts, which way would you work from there? Because of state white majority, if you don’t draw safe black districts, you could easily reduce number of black lawmakers. Is that OK? What would you do if you were reapportionment czar?

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      As reapportionment czar, I wouldn’t worry overmuch about maximizing the number of majority-minority districts. Because if I did, I’d just end up where we are — a few safe Democratic districts, and a LOT of safe Republican ones.

      I wouldn’t draw the black neighborhoods of, say, Florence into one district and the white ones into another. I’d draw a Florence district (assuming the numbers work — there may be a better example than Florence; I don’t have the numbers in front of me), and let the chips fall wherever.

      As for Clyburn… First, I wouldn’t worry about protecting ANY incumbent. But I’ll note that way back in the 90s, Clyburn told our editorial board that his district didn’t need to be gerrymandered anywhere near as much as it was for him to win. Most of that is just making the GOP districts all that much safer, by cramming into the 6th way more black voters than Clyburn needs to be safe.

      Of course, my districts would be challenged before the Justice Department both by Republicans and (some) black incumbents. Both groups are highly invested in race-based districting. (Despite all the hand-wringing by Democrats about how the Voting Rights Act has been “gutted,” districts can still be challenged if they are considered unfair to minorities, using the same rules as before — we just don’t have to get PRE-clearance any more, if I understand it correctly.)

      So that’s another hurdle to reform.

      I suspect my most likely allies as czar would be white Democrats. And maybe not them, either…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Actually, my most natural allies would probably be Republicans like John Courson and Democrats like Nikki Setzler, both of whom already have long experience with lots of constituents of the opposite party.

        And maybe Gilda…

        1. Mark Stewart

          Your natural ally is the courts; given the self-serving legislative motivations stated above, this can only be resolved by the black robes.

          One day, this will happen. Our Constitution is under siege. That isn’t hyperbole.

          We don’t need a “perfect” system, but we certainly do deserve one that doesn’t deliver safe districts to hyper-partisan politicians.

      2. clark surratt

        Good stuff, Brad. You’ve openly discussed racial realities of how we got where we are and the difficulty of doing otherwise. I haven’t seen enough of this debated when “reapportionment reform” is brought up.

    2. Norm Ivey

      Multi-member districts. Four from the lowcountry district. 3 from the upstate. Every citizen gets one vote choosing from a slate of candidates. Everyone gets represented.


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