The voices of South Carolinians in the redistricting process were effectively diminished from the start. Following the release of the 2020 census, the South Carolina state House’s Redistricting Committee scheduled hearings with the goal of receiving feedback from the public on the redistricting process. However, hearings were scheduled in the middle of a COVID-19 spike, “with less than a week’s notice”, on weeknights and with limited options for remote testimony. As a result, participation was limited to “those who lived near the location, had access to transportation, and were willing to chance the potential risk of exposure to COVID-19.”
On Sept. 21, 2021, the South Carolina House of Representatives announced it would adjourn with “no plans to reconvene for a special session” despite not enacting any new electoral maps. Three days later, the state Senate also followed suit and adjourned without any map proposals. South Carolina voters were left with a mountain of uncertainty and unequal representation ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.
With the concerns and outcry of the public, the South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP (South Carolina NAACP) and Hilton Head voter Taiwan Scott filed a lawsuit challenging the South Carolina’s congressional and legislative maps for being malapportioned after the release of census data.
The plaintiffs asked the court to prevent the state from conducting any elections on the existing configuration of districts and establish a timeline for implementing new maps if the Legislature did not enact new maps before election-related deadlines in 2022. Pro-voting groups maintained that time was of the essence since South Carolina possessed a long history of creating redistricting plans that required judicial review. Any further delay would prevent them from seeking remedies through the courts.
After much delay, the Legislature eventually passed a gerrymandered map.
Eventually, in December 2021, the Legislature did assume its constitutional duties of redrawing the congressional districts in a tumultuous six-week process that revealed “departures from procedural norms and lack of transparency during the redistricting process.” State legislators and members of the public were outraged by the limited time to review proposed maps and the lack of opportunity for meaningful public input.
The state House first adopted a congressional redistricting plan on Jan. 13, 2022 and sent it to the Senate. Upon receiving the state House’s plan, the state Senate substituted its own plan and returned it to the House a week later. The House approved the Senate’s plan, S. 865, and sent it to Gov. Henry McMaster (R) who signed it the same day.
After the South Carolina Legislature enacted new legislative and congressional districts, the plaintiffs filed amended complaints alleging that the new state House and congressional maps are racially gerrymandered and limit the voting strength of Black voters in violation of the 14th and 15th Amendments. The plaintiffs alleged that legislators “traded one constitutional violation—malapportionment—for two others: racial gerrymandering and intentional racial discrimination.”
A three-judge panel struck down the first congressional district as a racial gerrymander.
A trial on the challenged state House districts was scheduled for mid-May 2022, but the parties reached an agreement to enact a new state House map in which Black voters can elect the candidates of their choice in more districts compared to the original map. After a trial was held in the fall of 2022, on Jan. 6, 2023, the three-judge panel struck down South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District while leaving the 2nd and 5th Congressional Districts in place.
Due to significant population shifts in the 1st and 6th Congressional Districts, the Legislature had to address an excess of population in the Charleston-based 1st Congressional District and a population deficit in the 6th Congressional District. Republicans saw this as an opportunity to bolster their political advantage in the 1st Congressional District after a narrow win by Rep. Nancy Mace (R) in 2020 and a political upset by former Rep. Joe Cunningham (D) in 2018.
The court found that the intended Republican advantage was “effectively impossible without the gerrymandering of the African American population of Charleston County” and that the “movement of over 30,000 African Americans in a single county from Congressional District No. 1 to Congressional District No. 6 created a stark racial gerrymander of Charleston County.”
The Supreme Court will now decide if South Carolina’s first congressional district needs to be redrawn.
Under federal law, any decision from a three-judge panel is appealable directly to the Supreme Court — and the Court has to accept the appeal and rule on the merits. South Carolina Republicans’ appeal of the lower court’s decision propelled the dispute over the state’s 1st Congressional District directly to the Supreme Court in an effort to reinstate their illegal map. Tomorrow, the nation’s highest court will hear this case.
Republicans will argue that the three-judge panel erred in its determination that the map in question was a racial gerrymander and did not surmise that the Legislature acted in “good faith”. They contend that race and political affiliation are “highly correlated” and the lower court did not make the pro-voting plaintiffs prove race predominated the redistricting process rather than politics. Furthermore, they proclaim that race was “not even a factor, let alone a motivating factor” in the drawing of the 1st Congressional District.
The South Carolina NAACP believes that state legislators knew exactly what it was doing when “they moved almost 53,000 people into the already overpopulated Congressional District No. 1, and then another 140,000 people out.” The plaintiffs claim that Republicans’ actions “‘bleached’” Charleston County of 62% of its Black residents, more than 30,000 people, removing every precinct but one with more than 1,000 Black voters.” They allege that race was indeed a motivating factor in the drawing of the 1st Congressional District and the Court should affirm the lower court’s order.
Amicus briefs in support of South Carolina Republicans urge the Court to overturn the lower court’s order and point the fingers at “abusive redistricting litigation.” However, civil rights groups, historians and Democratic officials submitted briefs urging the court to affirm the lower court’s decision because it is clear that the congressional map is a racial gerrymander.
As a Black voter and member of the Gullah-Geechee community, Taiwan Scott — a plaintiff in this case and resident in the 1st Congressional District — is seeking refuge for his community in this redistricting fight. At trial, Scott raised concerns with the “lack of voice” for his community. Scott said that the Gullah-Geechee community feels like “the endangered species when it comes down to gentrification and land loss.” He hoped that his community would have the opportunity to elect someone “who will speak up and advocate for historical concerns that continue to arise and just continue to escalate.”
The future of South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District and the fate of Taiwan Scott’s community lies in the hands of the United States Supreme Court. Oral argument in this case will take place on Wednesday, Oct. 11 at 10 a.m. EDT. Follow along for live updates here or on Threads.