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.
We are working on four bills. Three address campaign finance and corruption. One focuses on the lack of democratic representation that has 77 percent of SC voters with only one name on their general election ballot for their House and/or Senate district. This gerrymandering breeds corruption through lack of competition. We currently have one piece of litigation in progress. All the legislation and litigation is designed to leverage our nonpartisan education and agitation for sound public policies and a restoration of representative democracy.
- Special Election Restitution Act (S-533): requires politicians removed from office because of a criminal conviction to pay for the special election to replace them. The bill was written by SCPN’s new Director of Government Relations John Crangle and introduced 3/19/17 by the newly elected Sen. Mike Fanning. Our team has taken the lead on this effort, which is receiving surprising support among lawmakers (and strong support, not surprisingly, from the public.)
- A 10% transparency fee on all campaign contributions to fund a unit in the state Ethics Commission to audit and publicly post donations and expenditures. Legislators have been very receptive to the idea that they would no longer have to keep their own books and that the across-the-board fee would keep candidates at the same comparative level of funding. The fee would also fund publicly financed candidates for the attorney general. The more than $20 million raised by candidates in the last election cycle would provide more than $2 million in funding.
- Public financing state attorney general candidates. SCPN first introduced legislation for public financing in 2000, sponsored by the late lawmakers Sen. Clementa Pinckney and Rep. Joe Neal. The next year, Gov. Jim Hodges established a Blue Ribbon Commission on Campaign Financing. A majority of the commission voted for public financing for all offices, but McMaster said he could only support public financing for the state attorney general. Now that campaign finance scandals are erupting in the State House, we intend to remind the governor that the state’s top cop shouldn’t take money from parties he may have to prosecute.
- Independent Redistricting Commission Bill. This is the state’s only truly independent proposal to end political gerrymandering. Unlike other proposals on redistricting, ours requires a six-member commission – three appointed by the majority party and three by and the minority party – to pick a seventh member to serve as the commission’s chair. Because the chair would be someone agreed upon by both parties, it would remove the weight of partisanship. Other bills calling for a redistricting commission send power back to the legislature, or governor, if the commission can’t make a decision.
Support in the legislature for the Restitution Act and the transparency fee has been positive. Public financing of the AG’s office will be a harder sell, but is not impossible – especially given the current political climate. Passing an independent redistricting bill is unrealistic, but we intend to gain ground organizing around both wins and losses. Few SC citizens realize that 77% of our 170 legislators are elected in the primary with the support of less than 9% of registered voters. The 125 legislators who won their seats with no general election opposition raised $8.2 million. Not surprisingly, the legislators indicted for corruption are among those with lots of money and no competition.
SCPN has launched a Democracy Project, a statewide grassroots civics education and engagement campaign. You can find a toolkit for activists at scpronet.com. Our PowerPoint presentations can be retooled with data relevant to specific audiences, depending on their district or area of interest.
It is clear that reforming our democracy in South Carolina is a long-term proposition. It will require base building, leadership development, and a heavy dose of educating and agitating. In the words of Modjeska Simkins, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is no sitting down time.” Let us take advantage of the opportunities this moment in history affords.
- Litigation: Crangle v. McMaster. SCPN Government Relations Director John Crangle has filed a lawsuit in May, seeking to determine the governor’s authority to appoint temporary replacements for legislators indicted for criminal offenses. The State Supreme Court has been asked to accept original jurisdiction of the case and is expected to rule by the end of July. Mr. Crangle’s state senator was indicted on corruption charges in March. The SCPN executive director’s state house representative was indicted in May and the former House majority leader from Charleston was indicted on 30 counts of ethic violations last December. These three seats remain vacant, as the governor is awaiting eventual conviction, or acquittal, on the charges. The lawsuit argues that Crangle et. al. are deprived of representation and constituent services for the many months their representative is suspended.