Every 10 years, following the completion of the United States Census, states are required to take the results of changes in population and redraw district boundaries for state legislature, county councils and school boards.
The finished map should contain districts that are equal in population “as nearly as is practicable,” according to a case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1964.
According to the 2020 decennial census, Beaufort County’s population is 187,117 people, an increase from the 2010 population of 162,233. To follow the guideline that the population be divided as equally as possible, each county council district should contain approximately 17,011 people.
That meant redrawing lines and “moving” portions of the population from some large districts into smaller districts in order to balance the numbers. The state requires that the totals in each district fall within 10% deviation of the desired number.
At the beginning of the county’s process, the council made the decision to keep the deviation within 5% of the desired population total. The proposed population range in Alternate 2, for instance, is from 16,728 in District 1, a deviation of -1.66%, to 17,383 in District 3, a deviation of 2.19%.
The new county council lines are supposed to protect against any racial redistricting plans that would deny minority voters an equal opportunity to elect representatives of their choice, in accordance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965; and – as noted in the Beaufort County announcement of the county’s redistricting meeting schedule – create boundaries that “must also be as contiguous and compact as possible, and keep communities of interest in their entirety.”
“This will be one of the toughest redistricting efforts I have been a part of in the last 20 years,” said Dan Morgan, director of Mapping and Applications, in the county’s announcement. “The growth of population in the south, the growing Hispanic community, and the requirements mandated by law will not leave much room for many options in how we draw the district boundaries.”
Work on redrawing the district boundaries was delayed until county officials received the newest census data, according to Beaufort County Council Chairman Joe Passiment.
He spoke at the public hearing for Districts 5, 6, 7, and 9 held Nov. 30 in the Bluffton Recreation Center on Ulmer Road. It was the second of three public hearings; the first was held in Beaufort at the University of South Carolina-Beaufort auditorium, and the third was held at the Hilton Head Island Recreational Center Dec. 1.
“The process started back in 2020, and what happened was it was shortened, so now we have what would normally take us nine months, as it did the last time, is now compressed into a four-month window,” Passiment said. “The county received the data from the census in October of this year. That set the clock ticking.”
Following the three public meetings, county staff members will take submitted public comments and see if any adjustments to the boundaries will need to be made from Dec. 2 to 5. On Dec. 5, the final two maps will be presented to the executive committee to decide which map to recommend for approval by the county council. Motions to adopt the map will take place during readings held Dec. 13 and Jan. 10 with the final reading Jan. 24.
Once county council has approved the new map, it will be sent to the South Carolina Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office to review and then enact. The new districts must be completed before candidates can file to run for office March 16, 2022.
Whether it was the timing so close to Thanksgiving or lack of interest, the Bluffton hearing was poorly attended, with only four private citizens, three local media persons, and a host of county council and staff members. The latter had anticipated a much larger gathering of residents curious as to whether their districts had changed, and what kind of impact it would have on compacting diverse communities.
One private citizen was Allyn Mitchell, a lifelong Blufftonian who has seen a lot of changes in the town.
“I am here in order to see exactly the effects of the redrawing of the lines, and to see who is going to be left out, especially how it will impact minority voting power, or even holding elected office,” Mitchell said. “I believe the people don’t realize that Bluffton is not a sleepy town anymore. Bluffton is growing. We have a city where we have a diverse community, and I believe that everyone needs to have representation based upon the diversity in the community. If we don’t have diversity, then I can see us maybe failing, coming up short. We could be short-changed by not being able to make a difference. Redistricting plays a big part of that, especially in Beaufort County.”
In the last 30 years, Mitchell has seen “mega growth,” both commercial and residential.
“It seems like everybody is looking to move to Bluffton. The reason why is we are a friendly community, it’s very open. People can walk, stroll. It’s just a beautiful place to live,” she said. “Based on that, we need to make sure that everyone gets a piece of the pie. We need to make sure that we keep it cohesive and that no one is left out. That’s why I’m here – to learn more and be able to share.”
While the proposed maps fall well within the state guidelines, several concerns were raised by those who felt compacting communities together in order to meet a numbers goal resulted in undesirable splits or “cracking” in unique communities.
A statement from the Beaufort County Democratic Party noted that “the proposed map splits the Gullah communities of Hilton Head from one district into two – 10 and now 8 – minimizing their voice and power within our county. It also pairs native families in the Spanish Wells area into a voting district with wealthy gated communities in Bluffton. How can one representative adequately represent the competing needs of these two different communities of interest?”
A similar concern was raised for the Buck Island/Simmonsville corridor – home to many of the town’s oldest Gullah families – as well as the Hispanic/Latino populations in the Avalon Shores and Westbury Park apartments, and residents in the Old Miller Road/Kim’s Way being added to newer gated communities.
“Cracking” is one of two methods of gerrymandering, which is a practice of establishing an unfair advantage for one party or group by manipulating boundaries of electoral groups. Cracking dilutes the voting power of the opposing party’s supporters across many districts.
The districts on the two alternate maps are currently defined by colors, unlike the last map which also included streets. Passiment said they have not yet been able to download the roadways onto the proposed maps, but will have that completed soon.
Another challenge the county had with the maps was discovered by a resident who was color-blind and could not delineate the different districts. That challenge was fixed by labeling each district.
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.