By Christina Elmore
Edited by Chris Cox
Legislators must be careful not to pack minority voters into election districts in ways that could dilute their overall voting power, several speakers told Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell at a public hearing Tuesday night.
The hearing, which McConnell led in his role as Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, is one of several the House and Senate are holding around the state to prepare for the once-every-decade job of redistricting congressional and legislative districts.
"Packing," or grouping, various ethnicities to fill one district has caused "a very unusual and strange division of people in the state of South Carolina," said Lonnie Randolph, president of the S.C. chapter of The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Randolph urged the committee to favor diversity and avoid packing, much as was done in the 1990s to create the state's majority black 6th Congressional District. The district has been represented by Democratic Rep. Jim Clyburn, an African-American, since 1993 and encompasses some of the state's most predominantly black counties.
"The districts of people of color have become blacker, and the districts with less color have become whiter," Randolph said.
Minority groups ultimately lose influence statewide if their vote is compacted into one district, Randolph said.
He encouraged the committee to consider a ceiling of no more than 60 percent blacks or whites in one district.
Though computers already play a major role in the redistricting process, a representative from ZillionInfo, a company that specializes in technologies assisting with data analysis, said updated software could reduce vulnerability to human error.
Bonan Li, the company's product manager, proposed using the company's software that she said would speed up the process, reduce human error, and optimize efficiency.
But Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, said such a system would limit necessary human judgment.
Ford said if the new software spreads minorities across districts, the chances of minority candidates winning could be reduced.
"There's got to be a winnable district, and a computer wouldn't do that," Ford said. "It wouldn't take anything into consideration except that there's 100,000 people in this district."
Ford also said that Randolph's proposed ceiling of 60 percent of one race in a district was too high and that 45 percent would be better.
About roughly two-dozen people came to the meeting at the Gressette Building. Their concerns were similar to those raised across the state, but other areas expressed more interest in population growth and where the state's additional 7th Congressional District would go, McConnell said. South Carolina's increased population in the 2010 census, 4.6 million, up from 4 million a decade earlier, entitles the state to the additional district, which is expected to be formed from parts of the 1st and 2nd Congressional Districts.
"I was surprised tonight we really didn't hear much about that," McConnell said.
Tuesday night's hearing was sixth in a series of public meetings. Hearings will also be held in Florence and Charleston this week.