County gets ready to draw new council lines
Georgetown County is due to receive data this week that will show how each of its seven County Council districts have grown during the last decade. That will enable the council to begin the process of drawing new district lines as required by state law following the census.
“There certainly have been shifts in population,” County Administrator Angela Christian said. “We’re certainly going to have to hop the river.”
While the county as a whole grew 5 percent in the 2020 Census, the Waccamaw Neck grew by over 14 percent and accounts for 43 percent of the county population.
Two of the current County Council districts are entirely within the Waccamaw Neck. A third includes an area on the west side of Winyah Bay.
The county contracted with the state Office of Revenue and Fiscal Affairs to compile the data and help draw new council districts.
After the 2010 Census, the county leased software that enabled staff in its GIS department to create new districts.
The state Association of Counties recommends using Revenue and Fiscal Affairs. “They don’t have a dog in the fight. They are a disinterested party,” said Josh Rhodes, general counsel and the association’s assistant director.
Redistricting takes place across all levels of government. Counties are unique in that state law creates a “hard deadline” for completing the process, Rhodes said.
The General Assembly had planned to reconvene in October to start redistricting. That was delayed until December. State Rep. Lee Hewitt said that if there are legal challenges to the proposed legislative districts, the party primaries in 2022 could be moved from June to August.
For counties, the law requires that new districts be in place for the election following the adoption of the census data, Rhodes said. That election would be the one in November 2022 and so the districts need to be in place when candidate filing begins in March.
“This year’s crazy because the census was delayed for COVID reasons, for political reasons,” he said.
Christian included funds in the county budget for redistricting, but said that Revenue and Fiscal Affairs does the work at no cost.
The first step is to create a “benchmark report” that shows how the population in each council district has changed. By law, the population of the districts can’t vary from one another by more than 5 percent. The state agency will tell the county what that range will be.
Revenue and Fiscal Affairs will also tell the county what it needs to do to meet the requirements of the federal Voting Rights Act. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a provision in the law that required South Carolina and other states to get preclearance for changes to election districts. But jurisdictions still face legal challenges if those changes are thought to discriminate by race.
Georgetown County currently has three council districts with majority minority populations. But the Black population of the county is just over 28 percent in the current census, which would represent two out seven districts.
“Just from looking at the numbers, it’s going to be very interesting,” County Council Chairman Louis Morant said.
The input from Revenue and Fiscal Affairs will be important in figuring out how the county will deal with the change in minority population. “I’m going look at the recommendations from them. They’re the experts,” he said.
Once council reviews the benchmark report, it will set the criteria for the new districts. That process will include public input.
By law, the districts must be contiguous; must minimize the division of voting precincts, municipalities and “communities of interest”; and be geographically compact.
Districts also need to be drawn so that they include the home of the incumbent council members. For the Waccamaw Neck, that may not be an issue. Council Members John Thomas in District 1 and Steve Goggans in District 6 have said they don’t plan to run in 2022.
This is Christian’s first redistricting in South Carolina. She was working in Onslow County, N.C., after the 2010 Census. It is home to the Marine Corps base at Camp Lejeune, and communities of interest was a significant factor, she said.
Council Members Bob Anderson and Lillie Jean Johnson are the only members who were serving the last time the district lines were redrawn.
“We pretty much did it over in the conference room at the administration building,” Anderson said. “It wasn’t that difficult.”
The plan was sent to the state for review before going to the U.S. Justice Department for preclearance.
Anderson found out when he ran for re-election in 2014 that a portion of Heritage Plantation where he lived had been shifted out of his Council District 6. He learned about it when a neighbor called him to say, “Hey, I couldn’t vote for you. What’s going on?”
“They changed the lines on us, they being the state,” Anderson said.
He lost that election to Goggans, but was re-elected to council in 2020 after moving within Heritage to the portion that is currently in District 2.
Anderson said he plans to be engaged in the redistricting process even if the council isn’t drawing the maps itself.
“It’s ultimately the council’s responsibility to get it done,” Rhodes said.
Once Revenue and Fiscal Affairs creates a preliminary plan, it will go back to the council for review. Once any changes are made, the plan will be presented at a public meeting before the council adopts it.
“I’m trying to figure out the timing,” Christian said. She expects to present the information to the council in October.