Lessons in undermining democracy

By Mandy Robertson, Beth Moon and Carol Corbin

After each Census, states assess how many members of Congress are needed and redraw districts to even out populations. The next census is in 2020, so South Carolina will redistrict in 2021. However, district lines are often drawn by the party in power to help them win future elections. This unsavory practice is called gerrymandering. Both parties employ this practice.

Gerrymandering occurs in two primary ways—cracking and packing. Cracking means that if you have a city with a concentration of Democrats–liberals tend to be concentrated in cities–you would redistrict by cracking that city into many districts, reaching out into the suburbs and rural areas where the Republicans live to create a majority of Republicans in each district. (Look at the pie slices emanating from liberal Austin, Texas, for an example.) Packing means you draw a line around all the people who are most likely to vote a certain way so they get one seat and only one seat. That’s what happened in South Carolina.

Even though 45 percent of South Carolinians usually vote Democratic, only one of seven representatives is a Democrat—Jim Clyburn in District 6, a district that is 57.2 percent African American. Districts cannot be drawn to pack by race, but they can be drawn to pack by party, and in the case of District 6, it’s the same thing.

As long as this system is in place, voters are not choosing their legislators, the legislators are choosing their voters. Thirty-seven states, including South Carolina, allow elected representatives to draw the districts. It’s pretty clear that this is not a very democratic way to determine districts. But what are the consequences of this system? First, legislators have the “ability to flip the entire theory of democracy on its head by personally picking their own voters,” wrote The State political columnist Cindi Ross Scoppe.   Second, many elections are determined in the primaries, when only about 10 percent of electors vote, and those who do are usually the highly motivated members of a party—think Tea Party politics. This pushes parties away from the center, and often away from negotiation and compromise in legislation—think D.C. gridlock.

Additionally, once a party is entrenched and controls the redistricting, it discourages opposition. Few Democrats want to run against an entrenched Republican in a Republican “safe” district, because the time, money, and effort of a campaign is huge. It’s hard to get candidates to run if there’s no chance of winning. Further, that situation dissuades voters from voting. If they know their candidate cannot win, or if there is no candidate running that they can support, why bother to go to the polls?

Redistricting after the 2010 census was an example of the polarization that takes place when politicians do the redistricting. Before the redistricting in 2011, 70 of 435 U.S. House districts had competition, but after 2011 only 53 did, and after the 2012 election only 47 did. It looks a lot like monopoly. The big guy swallows up the little guy and eliminates competition until a monopoly is formed.

Peter Frey, professor emeritus from Northwestern University, suggests that gerrymandering should be eliminated because “it can be a serious violation of the one-person, one-vote” principle. Computer programs that gerrymander districts can do the exact opposite–create districts with nearly equal number of voters from each party.  Frey asks, “Why not use gerrymandering to achieve a different objective—to create as many competitive districts as possible?”

This proposal would address many of the problems in Washington and in our state legislatures simultaneously:

  • Reduce the number of representatives who are permanent fixtures;
  • Increase voter participation—when an election appears to be very close, more people vote because their vote might determine who wins;
  • Weaken the influence of special interests;
  • Provide incentive for compromise in Washington.

Iowa has a nonpartisan districting procedure in which “three bureaucrats sequester themselves for 45 days every decade after census data is released…. [and] are not allowed to consider previous election results, voter registration, or even the addresses of incumbent members of Congress.” Iowa’s results are viewed as a model of fairness and may be a model for the nation. After the 2011 redistricting, the state’s Congressional delegates are evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. The state has some of the nation’s most competitive races, and the results are always a toss-up.

That sounds ideal! But how do we convince our own state representatives that we want fair and competitive districting? That is one of the initiatives of Beaufort SC Indivisible. A group of about 25 Indivisible members on the Voting Rights team is working to convince state legislators to change the way districts are laid out to make voting more democratic (with a small D).

Currently there is a bill at the state level sponsored by Senate minority leader, Nikki Setzler (Lexington), and co-sponsored by Senators Mia McLeod (Richland County) and Mike Fanning (Great Falls). This bill (S.341) proposes a constitutional amendment creating a non-partisan, independent redistricting committee and might make democracy a reality in South Carolina.

For more general gerrymandering information, watch John Oliver explain it. It’s funny and it’s true.



Take Action!

Please call or write your state senators to show your support for fair and non-partisan districting. Addresses and phone numbers below.

Here is a sample letter:


Dear Senator __________,

My name is ___________, and I vote in your district. I have become concerned that the district divisions do not give me a chance to be fairly represented in Columbia, since I am a (Democrat/Republican). Please vote for Senate Bill S.341 to appoint a committee that is non-partisan, that will redraw the voting districts to more fairly represent the voters (who live near each other and have similar concerns), and that will more equitably divide the state into several party divisions.

State Senators

District 43

Chip Campsen (R)

Beaufort, Charleston, Colleton

305 Gressette Bldg.

Columbia, SC 29201



District 45

Margie Bright Matthews (D)

Allendale, Beaufort, Charleston

502 Gressette Building

Columbia, SC 29201



District 46

Tom Davis (R)

Beaufort and Jasper Counties

404 Gressette Bldg.

Columbia, SC 29201




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