(The Center Square) – The American Civil Liberties Union is suing the South Carolina Legislature, claiming its compressed redistricting timeline makes it “nearly impossible” to publicly evaluate proposed congressional and state legislative districts before lawmakers must adopt them early next year.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Columbia on behalf of voters, South Carolina’s Conference of the NAACP and other groups.
The lawsuit, which was filed Monday, maintains delaying redistricting into December and January provides little time to review new legislative district maps before the March 30 filing deadline for candidates seeking state office in November’s elections.
“There’s a real risk that important election deadlines will come and go before maps are drawn and tested against the equitable demands of our Constitution,” ACLU South Carolina Legal Director Allen Chaney said. “This lawsuit will help ensure South Carolinians have an opportunity to run, organize and vote in statehouse and U.S. congressional elections with maps that meet constitutional requirement.”
Redistricting nationwide got off to a late start because the COVID-19 pandemic delayed completion of the 2020 U.S. census. Instead of receiving data from the U.S. Census Bureau in June, finalized facts and figures compiled from the decennial headcount weren’t available until August and, in some cases, this month.
The Senate Judiciary Committee’s 23-member Redistricting Subcommittee wrapped up its 10 public hearings on reapportioning its 46 state Senate districts in August. The eight-member House Redistricting Ad Hoc Committee completed its 10-meeting round of public hearings Oct. 4.
Both chambers were to convene a special session this week to approve the reapportioned 170 state legislative districts and collaborate on reapportioning South Carolina’s seven U.S. House districts.
House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, however, announced Sept. 22 the House would not convene in October because more time was needed to analyze census data. He has not indicated when, or if, the special session will happen with the 2022 regular session kicking off in January.
Also citing the delay in receiving census data and the need for more time, Senate President Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, canceled the Senate’s redistricting special session.
Lucas and Peeler, nor their offices, had not responded to the lawsuit. Gov. Henry McMaster dismissed it.
“I haven’t seen it,” McMaster told reporters. “This is par for the course. Anytime we go through redistricting, we go through lawsuits as well.”
Rep. Chris Murphy, R-North Charleston, who chaired the House redistricting panel and is among the defendants, assured The State on Tuesday that “the process is completely transparent and conforms to every legal standard, and will continue to do, so until the redistricting process is complete, which I anticipate will be not later than first week of December.”
The ACLU’s lawsuit asks the federal district court to delay the process and give a three-judge panel – and the public – more to time to evaluate proposed maps.
“The Legislature’s decision to delay map-making practically guarantees the Legislature will not produce timely maps that meet constitutional and other requirements or follow a process that offers an opportunity for meaningful public consideration," the lawsuit maintains.
Critics say South Carolina’s reapportionment system essentially allows state lawmakers to “choose their own electorate” instead of an electorate choosing its representatives.
In a 2018 Winthrop Poll, two-thirds of South Carolinians said lawmakers should not draw their own district boundaries, and an independent body should do so.
House Bill 4229, the proposed South Carolina Fairness, Accountability, and Integrity in Redistricting (FAIR) Act, was introduced by eight Democratic co-sponsors during the 2021 session. It and its Senate companion were never heard before committees.