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South Carolina House overwhelmingly approves new district maps

South Carolina House

The South Carolina House overwhelmingly approved its new districtsThursday that appear to maintain Republican dominance in the chamber and protect many, but not all, incumbents.

The 96-14 vote likely locks in the maps, because the Senate traditionally doesn't alter the House maps, and the House does the same for the other chamber. Republican Gov. Henry McMaster also is almost certain to sign off on the plan.

Legal challenges to the maps are practically guaranteed, but they aren't significantly different from the districts drawn after the 2010 U.S census.

A handful of districts were moved from rural areas that lost population in places like Orangeburg County and Florence County to areas with rapid growth like along the coast and the South Carolina suburbs of Charlotte, North Carolina.

The House maps have been criticized by groups like the League of Women Voters and the NAACP as breaking up some like-minded communities to protect incumbents and ensure Republicans maintain their current balance of power.

An analysis of the proposed House districts by the Princeton University’s Gerrymandering Project determined they would likely see 83 Republicans elected — two more than the GOP’s current advantage among the 124 seats.

The new district maps drawn by the General Assembly do face one less hurdle than redistricting efforts over the past several decades as the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 threw out a requirement under the Voting Rights Act that South Carolina and other states with a history of voting discrimination get federal approval for new districts and other changes in election rules.

Still, Republican leaders on redistricting pointed out they mostly used the 2010 maps approved by federal officials.

“Some things are just honestly outside of our control,” said Rep. Jay Jordan, who ran the House's redistricting committee. “South Carolina grew tremendously, in certain parts of the state.”

The state grew by 10.7% and added more than 500,000 people over 10 years to swell to a population of about 5.1. million.

The maps passed by the House ended up pitting five sets of incumbents against each other — three Democratic pairs and two Republican — if they choose to run again in 2022, including the House's second longest serving member, Rep. Jerry Govan, a Black Democrat from Orangeburg.

Govan, first elected in 1992, suggested several maps that he said would keep an extra district in Orangeburg. He also suggested he might have been cast aside with another incumbent to protect Rep. Justin Bamberg, a Black Democrat from Bamberg first elected in 2014 and reelected last year by just 59 votes.

Bamberg, who served on the House committee that drew the maps, had his district's Black population go from 39% to more than 54% under the plan

“If we have to go toe to toe fine, but don’t hide behind the committee,” Govan said, unsuccessfully proposing maps that would put him and Bamberg in the same district. "If you want to serve, let’s go before the people.”

Bamberg said the changes were inevitable because the area is losing population and Govan's plan would split some of the smallest counties in the state.

Rep. Wendy Brawley suggested maps approved by the League of Women Voters and NAACP, but they were voted down. Brawley has been put into a Richland County district with fellow Black Democrat Rep. Jermaine Johnson.

“I think what we want is protecting Republican incumbents at all costs," said Brawley, who is from Hopkins.

The House returns Monday to give final routine approval to the maps.

The Senate comes back in special session Monday to consider its own maps.

New maps for U.S. House seats likely won't be approved until January.

Filing for the 2022 state and U.S. House elections starts in March with primaries scheduled for June.

Copyright 2021 WFAE

Jeffrey Collins | Associated Press