Where do we Draw the Line?

When redistricting begins in 2021, South Carolina – along with the other 49 states – will draw new legislative districts for the U.S. House and the state legislature.  Redistricting is legally required every 10 years.

South Carolinians may be surprised to learn that neither the South Carolina Constitution nor state law provides any criteria for constitutional districting.  But in 2002, as part of statewide redistricting litigation, the Colleton Court (at 646-648) outlined traditional districting principles for The Palmetto State:

  • Maintain the cores of existing districts
  • Draw districts as “compact as reasonably possible”
  • Draw contiguous districts
  • Respect county and municipal boundaries  
  • Preserve communities of interest
  • Don’t draw incumbents out of their districts

The South Carolina Senate and the House adopted separate redistricting criteria in 2011 that largely followed the Colleton Court’s outline. Unless guided by law changes, they will almost certainly do so again in after the 2020 census.

South Carolina and all states must be in compliance, of course, with the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act.  State constitutions, laws, or legislatively-adopted criteria may set districting criteria, too. In addition, Courts look to “traditional districting principles.”

Interestingly, in some states, criteria not only differ but may be contradictory.  Some states, for example, allow partisan advantage as a criterion; others prohibit it. Some states allow incumbency protection; others prohibit it. Wisconsin even allows non-contiguous districts.

In the end, however, except for the requirements imposed by the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act, districting criteria are policy choices. Policy choices made in other states or under consideration could offer guidance to changing how South Carolina draws electoral districts.

John C. Ruoff, Ph.D.

The Ruoff Group

Dr. John Ruoff has been involved in redistricting since the mid-1980s. He has drawn and evaluated maps for every level of single-member districts in South Carolina, from boards of public works to the U.S. Congress, including the last three rounds of statewide redistricting. He has testified and consulted as an expert in redistricting and Voting Rights court cases.

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