Gerrymandering, South Carolina-style

SC 6th Congressional District

Yesterday, we discussed this Supreme Court ruling:

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature relied on racial gerrymandering when drawing the state’s congressional districts, a decision that could make it easier to challenge other state redistricting plans.

The decision continued a trend at the court, where justices have found that racial considerations improperly tainted redistricting decisions by GOP-led legislatures in Virginia, Alabama and North Carolina. Some cases involved congressional districts, others legislative districts.

The states contended that their efforts were partisan moves to protect their majorities, which the Supreme Court in the past has allowed, rather than attempts to diminish the impact of minority voters, which are forbidden….

The states argued that way because, bizarrely, our courts decided long ago that it was OK to stack districts to elect members of this or that party, or to protect incumbents — which to me has always seemed an abdication of the judiciary’s responsibility to check the power of the legislative branch. If lawmakers can perpetuate their personal holds on their districts, how is that unlike inherited titles, or the “rotten boroughs” that Britain did away with in 1832? But that’s just me.

I’d like to see the court take a good look at South Carolina next, if it gets the opportunity.

It should start with the 6th Congressional District, which is where GOP strategy in drawing congressional lines begins. Since 1990, our lawmakers have packed as many black voters into it as possible, so as to make our other six districts whiter and more likely — in practice now, virtually certain — to elect Republicans.

The trick, of course, will be proving a racial intent, since race and partisan leaning are so closely related. I don’t think our Republican representatives would care whether their constituents were black, white or green, as long as they voted for Republicans. But as we know, even if you drew the lines purely by voting patterns and didn’t have racial data available, if you draw a reliable GOP district, it’s going to very white.

The fact that it ends up that way can’t really be disputed — although the 5th and 7th districts “look like South Carolina” being 66.7% and 65.4% white respectively, they don’t look much like districts that include part of, or border on, the Pee Dee. And the other four GOP districts are whiter, with the whitest being the 3rd, at 76.9%.

I gleaned these figures from Wikipedia:

  • 1st — 74.8% white
  • 2nd — 69.5% white
  • 3rd — 76.9% white
  • 4th — 76.2% White
  • 5th — 66.7% White
  • 6th — 57.0% Black (40.8% White)
  • 7th — 65.4% White

At a glance, the 6th doesn’t look all that gerrymandered, until you focus on that crazy indentation that excludes the white suburbs of Charleston. And then you notice how, all along the coast, the rest of the southern border of the district goes almost, but not quite, to the beach — thereby drawing out the affluent white beaches while retaining the poor, black parts of those counties on the inland side of the Intracoastal Waterway.

Then there’s the weird little projection into Columbia at the top — which looks even more bizarre when you see what it fits into: an odd hook-like structure on the 2nd District map (below) that gives all of Columbia’s white suburbs to Joe Wilson.

Thus, Jim Clyburn is free to be the sort of Democrat that closely allies himself with Nancy Pelosi and know he’ll never lose his seat while he still wants it. And Joe Wilson, a Republican of an earlier time, is safe as long as he hangs on tight to the ears of whatever wild ideological beast is rampaging through his party at a given moment (yelling “You Lie!” helped with that, as inconsistent as it was with his personality).

It doesn’t really matter whom Republicans nominate in the 6th District, or whom Democrats find to put up in the 2nd. There are no choices to be made here.

And that’s very, very bad for our Republic.

You can see the same thing repeated again and again if you study state legislative districts. But this is the one that’s easiest to see.

SC 2nd Congressional District

16 thoughts on “Gerrymandering, South Carolina-style

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Of course, the most obviously gerrymandered SC congressional district, seen from outer space, is the 1st.

    Pretty wacky, huh?

    If we lived in a rational world in which neither race, nor party, nor incumbency protection was allowed in drawing lines, all of this would be a part of the 6th, with the 6th giving up the black neighborhoods of Columbia and a large portion of the I-95 corridor, probably giving up all the territory north of 95 and then some, since the coastal parts are so densely populated.

    But we don’t live in a world like that.

    SC 1st Congressional District

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Of course, it’s a lot more complicated than this, but consider: If you simply put all of Charleston, Beaufort and Colleton counties into one district, you’d have 606,582 people. Then you just need to pick up another 60,000 from Berkeley and/or Dorchester to make up the 1st District’s full 668,668.

      Or hand the portion of Charleston County that runs up the coast from the Cooper River to another coastal district, and you can take in Jasper and Hampton.

      I don’t know, but making counties as whole as you can seems to me a good place to start in addressing the craziness of the 1st…

  2. bud

    Gerrymandering is just a symptom of the bigger problem. That is the GOP has become such a sinister political force for pushing a plutocratic agenda. Frankly voter suppression is a bigger problem. Until the false equivalent crowd recognizes this truth then we’re stuck with a big problem that will only get worse. The only way to fight back is to only vote for Democrats. The idea of voting for the man or woman and not the party is a quaint relic of a a bygone era. A vote for anything else is a vote for plutocracy. Sadly good folks like Brad continue down this noble but counterproductive path in the false belief that Trump and other extremists are the result of bipartisan meddling. The idea of comparing an honorable woman like Nancy Pelosi to a radical blowhard like Mick Mulvainy is frankly offensive. Recognizing the will set us free.

  3. Jeff Mobley

    It’s always fun to think about computer algorithms that might be able to provide good baselines or starting points for when redistricting time rolls around. Of course, such algorithms aren’t necessarily impervious to bias, but they’re interesting to think about. The simplest I’m aware of is the “splitline” method, which makes nice geometrical shapes, but can create some rather undesirable results, like major metropolitan areas being cut in half, etc. There’s also this site that has some interesting-looking maps.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I’ll take a fair-minded human over an algorithm. More likely to see something that doesn’t quite make sense.

      Algorithms are getting better, but they still can’t figure out obvious things. For instance, they can’t figure out that the fact that I recent bought a chainsaw doesn’t mean I want to buy MORE chainsaws, but rather the reverse…

      1. Bob Amundson

        Fair-minded humans can create fair-minded algorithms, but only if controlling for human bias. Gerrymandering is an algorithm fraught with biases. Some social scientists believe the solution to spotting partisan gerrymandering is by measuring the “efficiency gap.” This measurement was at the heart of a successful challenge to gerrymandering brought against Wisconsin, and is key to pending cases in Maryland and a case in North Carolina separate from the recent SCOTUS decision.

        It works by looking at how many votes for one party are wasted. For example, if a Democrat carries a district by 30 percentage points, 29.9 percent of those votes are wasted, unnecessary for a simple majority win. If there are too many lopsided districts, that shows GOP mapmakers intentionally packed Democratic voters into a small number of districts, guaranteeing the party a few surefire wins and lots of losses elsewhere.

        But even if courts accept the efficiency gap as evidence of gerrymandering, they probably will never rule that it must be eliminated altogether. Efficiency gaps might be the result of neutral factors, such as efforts to comply with Voting Rights Act requirements or geography, with some areas packed more densely with one side’s partisans. Motivation is key in determining if a legislature gerrymandered a map, by making the case that inefficient redistricting was performed with the intent to create an unfair advantage.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          “neutral factors, such as efforts to comply with Voting Rights Act requirements…”

          Yeah. that’s what got us to where we are. If you go out of your way to create majority-minority districts, in deference to the aims of the Voting Rights Act, you get a bunch of super-white, Republican districts around each one.

          That’s how the GOP took over the SC House in the early ’90s. The Black Caucus was unhappy with the number of “black” districts Bob Sheheen was willing to draw, so they made a deal with the Republicans. Next thing you know, the 1994 election puts the GOP within a couple of defections (which quickly followed) of having a House majority. The Black Caucus ends up with a few more members in a House that from then on will utterly disregard anything the Caucus wants — unless it wants more “black” districts, which will lead to even MORE safe GOP seats…

          1. Bob Amundson

            It seems apparent that not all efforts “to comply with Voting Rights Act requirements…” were in good faith, by not following the intent of the law.

            1. Jeff Mobley

              The efficiency gap is a very interesting measure, but I really don’t see why it should have very much bearing on districting. In my mind, there are only a few things that should matter, like compactness, and perhaps a reasonable degree of alignment with small-scale geopolitical divisions like voting precincts, city limits, county lines, etc.

              There’s no especially compelling reason that we should expect all districts to be ideologically diverse. They should allow for the election of representatives who are, well, representative. That’s all.

              1. Jeff Mobley

                Caveat: I do believe that a marked change in voting efficiency from an old plan to a new plan, along with additional circumstances (e.g., weird shapes), could possibly constitute legitimate evidence of a particular motive in the redistricting plan.

  4. JesseS

    Ugh. Don’t remind me of the 5th. For years I was in it and then in 2013 the lines were re-drawn and it literally goes around my house.

    The guy across the street is in the 5th. The nearest house to my left is in the 5th. The nearest house to my right is in the 5th. Where am I? The 3rd and my voting precinct is about 200 yards from my house.

    Is getting big geographical blocks too much to ask for so I don’t have to break out a map every election to make sure someone didn’t move the line by 10 yards when I wasn’t looking? It’s like they want me to inadvertently commit voter fraud.

  5. Lynn Teague

    The League of Women Voters is going to work hard on this issue, including having its own maps drawn. We aren’t fighting for partisan advantage but for competitive districts in which voters know they have a real choice and in which there are a sufficient diversity of voters that district boundaries don’t contribute so much to our political polarization. There are parts of the state where drawing truly competitive districts for the General Assembly would be challenging, but there are others where it is a reasonable goal.

    There are two crucial turning points. First, we need an independent redistricting commission. I’d be fine with Burl’s solution, which would be even better than a state commission. However, the more power the General Assembly must concede, the harder it is to get something done. Just getting a GA-appointed commission is a big hurdle. Second, we need to take a hard look at the criteria. The “communities of interest” criterion is a serious problem. It can be useful, but is so vague that it permits some of the worst abuses. It should be eliminated. One can leave in political and environmental boundaries.

    I agree with you Brad – it is amazing that redistricting for partisan advantage has been okayed. However, the Wisconsin case that will go before SCOTUS may put some limits by requiring that there should not be an excess of “wasted votes.” The Wisconsin approach provides a way of measuring excessive gerrymandering, a big step forward.

    Which brings us to the final turning point. If necessary, state district lines can and will be challenged in federal court, with due consideration of post-2010 rulings by federal courts.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Lynn, that’s wonderful news! Please keep us posted on what the League is doing on this.

      One caveat, where you say “There are parts of the state where drawing truly competitive districts for the General Assembly would be challenging, but there are others where it is a reasonable goal….”

      Certainly we want competitive districts, but I would never force them. There are neighborhoods in Greenville that you’d expect to be safe for Republicans, and areas in the I-95 corridor that you’d expect to go for a Democrat. I wouldn’t go out of my way to make such districts competitive — you’d have to gerrymander to accomplish it.

      I don’t think that’s what you meant; I was just making sure…

      1. Lynn Teague

        We are on the same page here Brad. What I meant is that there are parts of the state where it would indeed require excessive gerrymandering to achieve a competitive district, especially the General Assembly House districts, which are fairly small. So, it is an unreasonable goal to try to make all districts competitive. However, SC can do a lot better than it has in other areas.


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