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State House, Senate districts OK’d in South Carolina

December 8, 2021 GMT
South Carolina Senate President Thomas Alexander, R-Walhalla, talks to Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Columbia, before the Senate meets on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021, in Columbia, S.C. Alexander was in his first full day presiding over the Senate. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
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South Carolina Senate President Thomas Alexander, R-Walhalla, talks to Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Columbia, before the Senate meets on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021, in Columbia, S.C. Alexander was in his first full day presiding over the Senate. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
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South Carolina Senate President Thomas Alexander, R-Walhalla, talks to Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Columbia, before the Senate meets on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021, in Columbia, S.C. Alexander was in his first full day presiding over the Senate. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina state senators approved new districts for the Senate and House Tuesday, but legal challenges are almost certain before filing begins in March for the 2022 elections.

The Senate voted 41-2 in favor of its lines, and the House approved its own districts on a 96-14 vote last week. Each chamber typically doesn’t alter the plans of the other chamber when they approve the plan.

The new maps didn’t make wholesale changes in the districts drawn a decade ago. But some changes were inevitable after South Carolina added nearly 500,000 people in the 2020 U.S. Census while still having 24 of its 46 counties lose population.

“Lots of people to shift around,” Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Luke Rankin said.

Both the House and Senate maps have to be signed by Gov. Henry McMaster, but the Republican governor is almost certain to approve the work of the GOP-dominated General Assembly.

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Lawmakers still have to finish maps for U.S. House districts, delayed after Democrats appeared ready to put up a fight over efforts to continue to carve up Charleston between the 1st and 6th districts. The initial proposal put more white, likely Republican votes in the 1st District, which is the only place a Democrat has flipped a seat from a Republican since 1986.

And groups that feel like South Carolina doesn’t do enough to protect minority voting rights and fairness in elections are expected to sue over the maps. The NAACP and American Civil Liberties Union have already sued the state saying the redistricting process took too long since filing for the new districts starts in mid-March.

One thing the new districts don’t need is approval from the federal government. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 threw out a requirement under the Voting Rights Act that South Carolina and other states with a history of discrimination get federal approval for their new maps.

Leaders in both the House and Senate said they tried to change the 2020 maps as little as possible from the 2010 maps which did get federal approval.

Larger changes had to be made in the 124 House districts. Three districts were moved to different fast-growing locations. Five pairs of incumbents – three sets of Democrats and two sets of Republicans – were put together.

The new House map cuts the number of general election races where the winning margin is projected to be within 5 percentage points almost in half to just nine districts, said Lynn Teague, vice president for the South Carolina League of Women Voters.

“This lack of competition is a very serious threat to representative democracy. General election votes become meaningless because the outcome is certain, or nearly so,” Teague said.

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An analysis of the proposed House districts by the Princeton University’s Gerrymandering Project determined they would likely have 83 Republicans elected, two more than the GOP’s current advantage in the 124 seats. That would push Republicans just over the two-thirds threshold needed to override vetoes and other legislative maneuvers.

The Senate map received a much more favorable reception. It moved one district from Columbia to Charleston, keeping the other 45 districts roughly in the same place. The Princeton group’s analysis finds the chamber would likely maintain its 30 Republican, 16 Democrat split.

“Democrats: Be happy. Republicans: Don’t be greedy. This is a good plan,” said Rankin, a Republican from Myrtle Beach.

While the GOP would maintain 65% of the Senate seats in a state where the Republican governor received 54% of the vote in 2018, Teague said the distribution of the state population makes it hard to draw maps to give Democrats more seats and senators tried hard to keep like communities together and maintain competitive districts when possible.

“On the whole, the Senate hasn’t moved us backward and has done its work with consideration for what they heard from citizens across the state,” Teague said.