What Democracy?

SC-01_mapIf state Democrats want to win big elections like the one they lost Tuesday on the coast, they’re going to have to get busy and retake control of the state Senate.

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Why? Because the outcome of Tuesday’s election was practically determined two years before the special contest between GOP former Gov. Mark Sanford and challenger Elizabeth Colbert Busch. Why? Because constitutionally-required redistricting to even population changes after the 2010 census made it tough for any Democrat to win.

In the First Congressional District, for example, voting age blacks comprised just 18.2 percent of voters. Huh, you might wonder? On the coast where African Americans comprise 30 percent of Charleston County, 26 percent of Dorchester County, 25 percent of Berkeley County and 20 percent of Beaufort County?

It’s because of how congressional district lines were gerrymandered by the General Assembly. An adjacent district — the so-called “black district” — of U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn finds blacks comprising 55.2 percent of the voting population.   If, for example, Clyburn’s district were made of only 45 percent of black voters (which still all but guarantee his victory) and the First District were drawn in such a way to have 28 percent of black voters, Colbert Busch probably would have won.

It’s the same story all over the state, a story brought to you by Republicans who carved district lines in state House, Senate and congressional districts to maximize the number of Republicans elected. [To be fair, Democrats did little different when they were in charge.] As we wrote in 2011, reapportionment is the political equivalent of the fox guarding the hen house because the very people who redraw the lines are those in office.  [The percentages of blacks and whites in House districts are shown at right. Click here for similar Senate figures.]

In the late 1980s, Gov. Carroll Campbell actively persuaded Democratic House members to join the GOP. By the early 1990s when it was time for redistricting, an emboldened GOP approached black Democrats and made a deal that guaranteed them a higher percentage of black voters in their district, thereby making it easier for them to win reelection. In turn, the GOP got whiter “white districts.”

Just look today at the 124 House seats. Some 30 districts have black voting percentages of greater than 50 percent. All are Democratic. Just five are represented by white Democrats. Six other districts have black voting percentages of at least 40 percent; two are represented by blacks.

There are 10 House Democrats — all white — who represent districts with less than 40 percent of black voters, from Leon Stavrinakis of Charleston (23.2 percent black) and Beth Bernstein of Columbia (26.4 percent black) to Jimmy Bales of Eastover (39.5 percent black).

It’s not much different in the state Senate where nine of 46 districts have a black voting age population of more than 50 percent. Sen. John Scott (D-Columbia) has a district that’s 63.8 percent black, while an adjacent district for Senate President Pro Tem John Courson (R-Columbia) is 18.7 percent black.

If Democrats want to have more of a chance in the Statehouse — which would make the whole governmental system more competitive and vigorous — then they’re going to have to have more of a say in the redistricting process. To do so, they have to win at least one of the two chambers. The House is so overwhelmingly Republican that it would be tough, but a switch of six seats in the Senate would return it to Democratic control.

Furthermore, what needs to happen in the next redistricting process is for black districts to get less black and white districts to have more people of color. If that were to happen, political races would be more competitive, which would mean more vigorous debates and a step away from predetermined policy solutions that skew Republican.

The effect that all of this has had on our political system is truly spectacular and depressing. A majority of Republicans and Democrats in office run for re-election virtually unopposed because the numbers are in their favor to win. Turnover of seat tends to happen when someone retires, dies or decides to run for something else.

That needs to change.

Editor's note: This story originally published at StatehouseReport.com. Images: SC District One map via DailyKos.org (cc); Chart via the StateHouseReport.com
Andy Brack

Andy Brack

Andy Brack is a syndicated columnist in South Carolina and the publisher of Statehouse Report. Brack, who holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, also publishes a weekly newsletter about good news in the Charleston area, Charleston Currents. A former U.S. Senate press secretary, Brack has a national reputation as a communications strategist and Internet pioneer. Brack, who received a bachelor’s degree from Duke University, lives in Charleston, S.C. with his daughters, a dog and a badass cat.

Brack’s new book, “We Can Do Better, South Carolina,” is now available in paperback via Amazon.