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Groups seek lawmakers’ return to Columbia to take up redistricting in lawsuit

Published: Oct. 13, 2021 at 9:07 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - The South Carolina Senate was supposed to reconvene Tuesday in Columbia to start discussing redistricting.

But lawmakers did not meet Tuesday after the Senate president canceled the special session, and they have not set a date to reschedule.

Instead, legislative leaders and the governor are now facing a lawsuit related to it.

On Tuesday, the ACLU of South Carolina filed a lawsuit on behalf of the South Carolina NAACP and a Hilton Head resident, naming Gov. Henry McMaster, Senate President Harvey Peeler, and Speaker of the House Jay Lucas as defendants. The other defendants are Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Luke Rankin, House Judiciary Committee Chair Chris Murphy, House Elections Law Subcommittee Chair Wallace Jordan, South Carolina State Election Commission Interim Executive Director Howard Knabb, as well as State Election Commission members John Wells, Joanne Day, Clifford Elder, Linda McCall, and Scott Moseley.

In it, the plaintiffs are asking a judge to order lawmakers “to abide by a concrete timeline that will allow sufficient time for public notice, input, and the resolution of any litigation, and result in finalized, legally compliant maps well in advance of critical deadlines, including the March 30, 2022 candidate declaration deadline.”

The redistricting process was initially delayed because data from the U.S. Census, which is used to determine districts, was released later than usual because of the pandemic.

Plaintiffs are claiming they and other South Carolinians “face a substantial and imminent risk” this redistricting process will not be done in time for those deadlines, and they argue if this happens, it would violate their constitutional rights.

South Carolina’s legislative and Congressional districts determine who represents each South Carolinian at the State House and on Capitol Hill, respectively.

The Supreme Court has ruled that the populations in each district within a state are required by the U.S. Constitution to be roughly equal, so every person’s vote matters equally.

But because of population changes over the last decade, the current Congressional and legislative districts are not all equal.

For example, new census data shows the First Congressional District, currently represented by Republican Nancy Mace, now has more than 100,000 people more than the Sixth Congressional District, represented by Democrat Jim Clyburn, according to the lawsuit.

In South Carolina, state lawmakers are tasked with redrawing district lines to balance out populations.

But legislators have not released the first drafts of the new maps, and so far, they have not yet set dates for when they will all return to Columbia to discuss this process.

On Sept. 24, Peeler, the Senate president, canceled the special session his chamber was scheduled to begin this Tuesday, saying the maps would not be completed by then.

On Sept. 22, Lucas, the speaker of the House, issued a statement saying the House had no plans to reconvene for a special session at that point. On Wednesday, his office confirmed there was still no schedule for a special session and declined to comment on the lawsuit because of ongoing litigation. A request for comment to Peeler’s office was not returned.

Plaintiffs claimed the delay is hindering their abilities to participate in the political process, writing South Carolinians “do not know whether their current representatives will be eligible to run in their districts in the upcoming election,” that “potential candidates for legislative seats also do not know the districts they may run in,” and “every day without new maps is a day in which candidates and interested organizations, such as Plaintiff South Carolina NAACP and its volunteers, cannot be contacting and educating the electorate in their districts.”

On Tuesday, McMaster told reporters he had not yet read the lawsuit.

“This is par for the course,” he said. “Anytime we go through redistricting, we go through lawsuits as well.”

A federal court has typically had to weigh in during past redistricting cycles to ensure the maps are legal before they are approved.

According to the lawsuit, it has usually taken at least four months for these disputes to be settled.

If House and Senate leaders do not call for special sessions, their next opportunity to start discussing redistricting would be Jan. 11, when they return to the State House for their regular legislative session.

The ACLU of South Carolina, which filed this lawsuit on behalf of the plaintiffs, was also behind the recent lawsuit challenging the state law limiting school mask mandates, which later resulted in a federal judge temporarily blocking that law from being enforced.

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