By Lake Morris
Edited by Jennifer Standard
For years, South Carolinians have found that when Election Day dawned, the races in their state House and Senate districts had been decided in the primaries. In the recent election, for instance, incumbents ran unopposed in 78 of the 123 House races, while 10 faced only third-party opposition.
In Richland County, seven incumbents were unopposed while two faced third-party candidates. Only House Districts 78 and 79 had Republican and Democratic competition.
And with upcoming reapportionment, voters are unlikely to see much change this.
Reapportionment is done every decade after the U.S. Census to balance the number of voters in legislative districts.
Rep. James Harrison, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which handles redrawing the House maps, said he doesn't expect districts to drastically change. The Richland County Republican is still waiting to get the census numbers, which he expects to have by March.
Republicans hold a 13-9 advantages in the House Judiciary Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee, which handle reapportionment for the state.
The last time districts were drawn, each had about 33,000 people, Harrison said. Growth has ballooned in some areas, while others have drastically shrunk, he said.
"Without the census numbers, it is hard to predict what districts will grow," Harrison said, but he does have some idea where districts may have to change.
"If you look at where the state has had the most growth, it is along the coast, in York and Lancaster counties, Northeast Richland County and good a deal of growth in Lexington County around Lake Murray. A good deal of growth has also been in the Greenville area," he said.
Harrison said areas where the population has stayed the same or decreased would be in the Pee Dee and elsewhere along the Interstate 95 corridor.
Rep. James Smith Jr., the Judiciary Committee's ranking Democrat, said there is little Democrats can influence in the reapportionment process, but he is confident the majority will work in good faith.
"We hope to get the lines drawn with respect to natural boundaries and communities of interest, and to avoid race as a predominant factor," said Smith, D-Richland.
Both he and Harrison ran unopposed in the recent election.
Andrea McAtee, a USC political science professor who specializes in state government, said redistricting and reapportionment provide opportunities to limit the opposing party's influence.
Single-party domination is nothing new in South Carolina. Until about the 1970s, Democrats held overwhelming power in South Carolina, and the Republicans were a quiet political minority.
The GOP's resurgence in the South during the 1970s and ‘80s, partly in reaction to federal intervention to stop discrimination, led to Republican control of the S.C. House in 1994 and the Senate in 2001.
With Republicans in control of the Legislature and the governor's office, McAtee said she would not be surprised if a few districts are consolidated to further limit the Democrats' power by forcing two incumbent Democrats to run against each other.
Columbia lawyer Butch Bowers, a specialist in election law, says "safe districts," when the lines are drawn to concentrate voters of one party or the other with little competiton, are legal as long as they comply with the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which makes it illegal to attempt to dilute minority voting power.
If the safe districts are byproducts of reapportionment, it usually is legal, Bowers said.
Smith said there are "certainly circumstances where incumbency protection occurs." "
There is prior court precedent on the subject, and it is not considered an inappropriate pursuit," he said.
Smith said with 170 legislators¬–124 in the House and 46 in the Senate–, it is unavoidable that self-interests come into play.
Since general election competition has been scarce at the state legislative level, the primaries have become the one place voters have a choice.
But South Carolina voters must register as only Republican or Democrat to vote the primary, further limiting their options.
The result is the majority of legislators are being selected by a minority of registered voters. This past primary season, 24 percent of the state's nearly 2.6 million registered voters voted in the primaries, according to the State Election Commission, compared with 52 percent in the general election.
Republican control bodes well for Republican incumbents, Bowers said, but it is no guarantee for cooperation in passing redistricting. Bowers points to different factions that can develop within parties.
Had Democratic state Sen. Vincent Sheheen won the governor's race, he might have vetoed the maps being produced, but since Republican Nikki Haley won, the chances of a veto are less likely, Bowers said.
Harrison and Smith both expect the process to go smoothly between the Legislature and Haley, a former House member.
"Republicans have a historic high in members. They have little reason to overreach, but I believe they will work in good faith in respecting existing communities of interest in drawing upcoming districts," Smith said.
McAtee said she doesn't expect the number of unopposed districts to decrease and that more will probably come about after reapportionment. But she does not think the lack of choice is good for democracy.