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Every 10 years in spring like clockwork, the General Assembly is mired in the minutia of redrawing election lines as required by the U.S. Constitution. 

Except this year because of a double-whammy that has delayed everything for months.

First came an assault on the census process by the Trump Administration. While the Constitution requires every person living in the United States to be counted every decade, Trump and his cronies wanted to change the rules in an obvious effort to marginalize the count of non-citizen residents. Officials tried to do this by asking people about their immigration statuses, which states and activists said would chill legal immigrants from participating in the 10-year count because they would be afraid of what would happen if they gave information to the almighty government. By 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the administration’s insistence on an immigration question was “arbitrary and capricious,” causing the feds to drop the question after a whole lot of drama.

The second part of the whammy was the pandemic, which made collection of results difficult. In fact, the state Commerce Department extended the deadline for data collection by three months last year to the end of October, although the Trump Administration again fiddled with the process to end the extension early, which the courts approved.

Bottom line: The annual census, normally as regular as rain, has been a chaotic mess because of natural and Trump-made disasters. And that’s thrown off the whole process.

Brack

On one hand, it’s not terrible news, as observed by Clemson professor Matthew Saltzman, who works on redistricting as a member of the League of Women Voters of South Carolina.

“The delay gives those of us that want to participate and to engage the public in the process more time to get our processes and our outreach efforts up to speed,” he says.

But remember redrawing voting lines is done by House members and senators in a kind of fox-guarding-the-henhouse manner. And so far, they haven’t even gotten started. No leaders of the process have even been appointed. The census data isn’t expected until the end of September, which will cause all sorts of rushing around. And that will give advantages to the people drawing the lines because citizens watching will have less time to come up with alternatives that may be fairer than what the foxes develop.

“When legislators are left to draw lines on their own, behind closed doors, they are able to bring a significant amount of control to the outcome of district elections,” Saltzman said. “They can protect incumbents — an actual requirement in Statehouse guidelines in 2011 — or assign voters to districts in ways that bias the outcomes strongly toward one party or the other.”

He pointed out that South Carolina voters faced uncontested general elections in more than half of House seats in 2020 and a third of Senate seats.

“That lack of competition means that legislators are beholden to their primary voters and special interests and much less so to their constituents as a whole.”

With a compressed timetable, South Carolina legislators likely may get new lines before the March primaries as many expect a special fall session to hammer out details. But if they’re delayed for one reason or another, primaries could be delayed.  

Meanwhile, municipalities with elections this year have two options — to hold elections using current lines or delay municipal elections to have new districts that apportion voters fairly.

Whatever happens, the lack of action by this point in time is a pure shame. This year’s reapportionment is a result of partisan chaos intentionally caused by a former administration to create distrust in a process that should be as routine as the sun rising daily.

Andy Brack is publisher of the Charleston City Paper. Have a comment?  Send to: feedback@charlestoncitypaper.com.