We have discussed the issue of who draws legislative district boundaries during the redistricting process. Do voters choose their representatives, or do representatives choose their voters? The criteria for drawing boundaries may be an even more important issue than who draws those boundaries in answering this question in favor of voters.
There are some requirements that must be met by all states when redrawing district boundaries. All must comply with constitutional equal population requirements. Districts for the houses of the General Assembly and the US House of Representatives must be approximately equal in population. Also, all states must abide by the requirements of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), although South Carolina and other states are no longer subject to preclearance of voting changes under Section 5 of the VRA. The VRA is an extremely important protection that allows minorities to elect representation of their choice.
Court cases over the years have established more specific guidelines for how these universal requirements are implemented. Within those boundaries, each house of the SC General Assembly has created its own specific criteria. In 2011 the South Carolina Senate issued its criteria, which are available at http://redistricting.scsenate.gov/Documents/RedistrictingGuidelinesAdopted041311.pdf. The House also issued criteria, available at http://redistricting.schouse.gov/6334-1500-2011-Redistricting-Guidelines-(A0404871).pdf. The House criteria of 2011, interestingly, include “Incumbent Protection” as a specific requirement.
The League of Women Voters believes that criteria should be enacted in law, rather than established through temporary guidelines. And, we believe that criteria should prohibit protecting either incumbent individuals or political parties. How would we achieve this?
The criteria embedded in our preferred redistricting legislation (H.3054 and S.230) seek to protect the interests of all citizens and do not allow protection of incumbents or parties:
Apportionment redistricting plans for the Senate, House of Representatives, and United States House of Representatives districts shall comply with the United States Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. 1971, et seq. Redistricting plans must be comprised of districts that are geographically contiguous and, to the greatest extent possible, geographically compact, while maintaining and respecting the geographic integrity of any city, county, city and county, neighborhood, or communities of interest including, but not limited to, rural communities, coastal communities, or separation by geographic features such as lakes, major rivers, national forest, or mountains. Communities of interest may not be interpreted to include relationships with political parties, incumbency, or political candidates. The place of residence of an incumbent or a political candidate may not be considered in the apportionment of districts, nor shall districts be apportioned for the purpose of favoring or discriminating against an incumbent, political candidate, or political party. In drawing districts, the commission shall seek to achieve substantial population equality among districts with deviations for state House of Representatives and Senate districts allowable to achieve compliance with nondiscriminatory criteria.
There is little about the redistricting process that is simple. What is a “community of interest?” What does it mean to be geographically compact? To some extent, answers to these questions have been provided by a long series of federal court cases but there is still considerable room for interpretation. There probably always will be. However, we believe that the provisions of H.3054 and S.230 would establish a sound foundation for the redistricting process in South Carolina and should be adopted by the General Assembly to give citizens confidence that their votes matter, that they are not simply participating in a process in which the outcome has already been determined by representatives choosing their voters.