Horry County residents on Wednesday had their first chance to publicly testify on the proposed redistricting maps for county council and county board of education seats, which will determine how future local elections operate.
They weren’t pleased.
“This looks like a little kid in preschool drew these maps and let paint just run down all over the place,” Cedric Blain-Spain, a leader in the Horry County Democratic Party, told leaders in charge of drawing the maps at the public hearing.
County leaders are re-drawing the maps that determine council and school board districts as part of the once-a-decade mandate that’s tied to the U.S. Census, which counts the nation’s population every 10 years. When that data was released several months ago, it showed that Horry County had added more than 80,000 new residents since 2010, meaning that district maps could change substantially.
And indeed they did, according to a draft map released two weeks ago.
The biggest change to the map came in Carolina Forest, which was consolidated into one uniform district with a single council and school board member. Previously, the unincorporated area known as Carolina Forest was split up among four council and school board districts.
And due to the population increase, several districts around the county were compacted into small geographic areas, eliminating so-called “fingers” that existed in the previous map to make the districts roughly equal. The Carolina Forest district, for example, previously reached into Myrtle Beach city limits, and the Forestbrook district previously reached into Conway city limits. The proposed map compacts both of those districts.
With the population increase, each district includes roughly 32,000 residents.
But some residents said the more compact maps could cause problems. Carole vanSickler, the president of the Carolina Forest Civic Association, decried the fact that the area lost three of its four council and school board representatives.
“On behalf of the residents of Carolina Forest, we were totally surprised by the reduction of Horry County councilmen from four to one, that’s a 75% reduction,” vanSickler said. “As an unincorporated entity, we have relied on additional Horry County Councilmen for their support.”
vanSickler explained that Carolina Forest residents have used the fact they had multiple representatives to effectively address issues in their community. Residents there don’t have a desire to form their own city with its own powers and representation, she said, meaning having multiple county representatives was important. Under the proposed map, County Council member Dennis DiSabato and school board member Tracy Winters would represent the area exclusively.
vanSickler also took issue with the neighborhoods included in the new standalone Carolina Forest district. The Wild Wing neighborhood in Conway, she said, was included in the district, but is not generally considered part of Carolina Forest. Similarly, she said, neighborhoods along River Oaks Drive were left out of the district, despite being traditionally considered part of Carolina Forest.
“Before this redistricting started, we were told we were going to lose maybe two (representatives), so we kind of figured we’d go from four to two,” vanSickler said. “But we don’t consider what they’ve defined as Carolina Forest being all in district three.”
Other residents, like Blain-Spain, argued that areas with concentration of Black and Democratic voters were split up into multiple districts, which he referred to as “cracking and packing.” In Myrtle Beach, he said, several precincts with a significant number of Black voters were broken up among three districts, meaning the influence of those voters could be “diluted.”
“They have cracked up that African-American vote...so now you have a community where it’s a large portion of African-Americans that are now split between (districts) two, three and four,” Blain-Spain said. “So that is clear signs of cracking.”
He added: “As a resident of Horry County, I’m asking that this committee go back to the drawing board. Draw fair districts without cracking and packing.”
Blain-Spain and others also complained that several districts in the Western part of the county were unusually large and their borders unwieldy. Part of the reason for that is because fewer people live in the more rural areas, meaning those districts need to be larger to be equal in population to other districts. Blain-Spain, though, questioned why district 10, which stretches from S.C. 31 to the county’s Western border, wasn’t kept to the Western part of the county, and why it stretched into the Carolina Forest area. He suggested that Western and rural districts be more uniform.
Several residents, as well as county leaders, also voiced concern on Wednesday that the county wasn’t gathering enough public input on the proposed maps.
“I’m disappointed that this room is not packed,” vanSickler noted. “4 o’clock in the afternoon is a very, very difficult time to have a meeting to get people who are working, who have families, kids in school, and whatever.”
Redistricting committee members Orton Bellamy, Doris Hickman and chair Tyler Servant all agreed with vanSickler that additional public comment should be gathered. They said additional meetings to gather public input would be held in the near future.
“I have been receiving calls from persons who said they wished to be in attendance but they are working and they can’t get off in time, in a timely matter to be here, because then they will be penalized their salary or a day’s work,” Hickman, the committee’s Democratic representative, said. “I just think it behooves us to make sure that our citizens will have an opportunity to come and be a part of the redistricting process.”
In the end, residents like Blain-Spain said, they’d like to see county leaders re-draw the maps to make the districts more competitive. Blain-Spain noted that the county council is made up of all men, only one Black person, and no Democrats. He said he’d like to see districts where Democratic candidates and Black people could be competitive.
“You see this council, (mostly) white men, no women, so that’s not competitive, that’s not even fair to the county,” he said. “It’s like the old wild west in the decision making and everything.”