The SC Progressive Network‘s Democracy Project is our campaign to address the critical condition of representative democracy in the Palmetto State. We have among the nation’s least competitive elections, with fewer than 9 percent of registered voters choosing 125 of the 170 legislators who run the state.
Seventy-four percent of the legislative races have only one name on the general election ballot. Voters in only 45 out of 170 political districts have more than one candidate to choose from.
The reduction of competition and representative democracy is not unique to South Carolina, as the national average of unchallenged legislative seats is 42 percent.
This lack of competition has several causes and effects.
The primary cause is the political gerrymandering, and party switching, that created majority white and black districts. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited racial gerrymandering, but allowed political gerrymandering that federal courts are just recently recognizing as racially discriminatory. The US Justice Department had allowed political gerrymandering under the Voting rights Act, arguing that a discriminatory impact of gerrymandering isn’t illegal if it is not driven by racial hostility, but by a drive for political power. The US Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that sections of the Voting Rights Act that required extra scrutiny of voting districts in states that have history of racial discrimination (like South Carolina) was no longer necessary. This ruling opened up the question of political gerrymandering’s racial impact in state and federal courts for the first time since 1965.
A simple example of racial gerrymandering is found in the creation of our state’s 7th congressional district due to our population increase in the 2010 census. Before 2010, South Carolina had six congressional districts, and one-third of the population was of color. Representative democracy would dictate that the state should have had two congressional districts that are “contestable” by people of color. A district is generally considered to be contestable with a 45 percent nonwhite population. In 1992, in a deal between the white Republicans and majority-black Democrats, the 6th district was redrawn to be a majority minority district with a 56 percent black population.
The 2010 redistricting by the state’s Republican-dominated legislature packed the 6th district with 64 percent blacks, and added the new 7th congressional district with a 31 percent black voting population. The state’s other districts have between 21 and 27 percent black voters.
There were many plans submitted from various Democratic and black organizations that all called for two majority minority districts. It is worth noting that the Network supported the only redistricting maps submitted that did not create any majority-black districts. Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter submitted maps that showed the 6th district 46 percent and the new 7th district 44 percent. Cobb-Hunter argued that competitive districts yield more democratic representation than majority black or white districts. Unfortunately, Black, as well as Democratic, representation in the US House has gone from 16 percent to 14 percent.
The dominance of money and power are the root cause of our withering democracy. Election campaigns have doubled in cost since the SCPN first introduced legislation for public financing in 2000. The average cost for winning house seats is approaching $40,000 and a Senate seat is more than $150,000. Campaign consultants and the rising use of paid media drive longer and more expensive campaign.
The primary effects of political gerrymandering is a coarsening of politics and a refusal to compromise for the greater good. Since candidates win with a tiny fraction of registered voters in the primary, they play to the most extreme fears and concerns of their party’s faithful. Since Ronald Reagan pronounced that government was the problem, not the solution of our problems, we have seen Republican candidates campaign on being against government, taxes and compromise. Reagan also adopted the “Southern Strategy” of the new Jim Crow that identified poverty and law and order as substitute targets for overt racism. The effects of our leaders opposition to government can be seen in our deteriorating quality of life. SC ranks 50th in education, road and dam maintenance, 46th in wages, and 42nd in tax burden (among the lowest taxes) and life expectancy. We’re fifth in venereal disease, fourth in prison population, and first in highway deaths.
Fixing our broken democracy is a long-term challenge. We need to have an independent redistricting commission to draw competitive political district that encourage compromise and a commitment to the general welfare. The problem here is that the majority party of the legislature is responsible for drawing new districts and it is unlikely that they will voluntarily vote themselves out of power.
We have harbored the hope that federal courts will find that political gerrymandering is unconstitutional. That hope has been put on hold with the election of Donald Trump.
If we can’t legislate or litigate our way to representative democracy, we’re going to have to organize our way. We have to educate and agitate around the problems that working South Carolinians share. We have to build a movement across race and class lines that is driven by the recognition that money has corrupted our system and that we’re all better off, when we’re all better off.
Legislative fixes include:
- Creating an independent redistricting commission to draw competitive political districts.
- Defining what legitimate campaign expenses are.
- Requiring politicians removed from office due to corruption to pay for the special election to replace them.
- Placing a 10 percent tax on all campaign contributions to fund effective enforcement of campaign finance laws. This unit of the State Ethics Commission would assume the responsibility of managing reporting for elected officials by using electronic tracking and posting of donations and expenditures.
- Institute a system of public financing for public office, starting with the state Attorney General’s office, funded by the 10% campaign tax.