SC GOP lawmaker protests Hilton Head split in new advanced House redistricting map

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Jeff Bradley R-Beaufort and Bill Herbkersman R-Beaufort discuss proposed redistricting maps at the South Carolina State House on Thursday, December 2, 2021.

One South Carolina Republican lawmaker who represents part of Beaufort County and Hilton Head Island was among nine Republicans not to vote on the House’s new redistricting map adopted Thursday.

Another missed the vote entirely because of health reasons.

The House redistricting plan, which has been criticized for favoring Republicans and incumbent politicians at the expense of voters, passed 96-14. It requires a final vote Monday and must then be adopted by the Senate, but those steps are considered perfunctory.

State Rep. Jeff Bradley, R-Beaufort, abstained because he vehemently opposes the way his district has been drawn, and state Rep. Weston Newton, R-Beaufort, missed the vote while recovering from a recent choking incident that put him in the hospital.

At issue is the splitting of Hilton Head into two House districts. Bradley represents the entire island with the exception of half of a single voting precinct that falls in Newton’s district.

Even though the split is historical, Bradley said he’s been catching hell from constituents who blame him for carving up the island.

“It’s important that people understand I didn’t set this up. It wasn’t me,” he said, adding that he prefers the district to be drawn as sensibly as possible.

Bradley proposed an amendment to the House map Thursday that would make the island whole in his district, but it was tabled at the request of House Judiciary Chairman Chris Murphy, R-Dorchester, because it would affect Newton’s district.

Bradley said afterward that he hadn’t been able to get in touch with Newton about his proposal, but that he hoped his amendment could be attached to the redistricting bill in the Senate, if he’s able to get Newton’s blessing.

Newton, who sits on the House redistricting panel, responded to criticism of the Hilton Head split during a committee hearing earlier this month, saying that the portion of Hilton Head that stretches into his district, an area known as Jenkins Island, is actually outside the municipal boundaries of Hilton Head and has “dramatically different” interests than the rest of the island.

“It has been made clear that that area does not believe that they are part of Hilton Head, in fact they have resisted the municipal boundary annexation,” Netwon said.

While the unusual split of Hilton Head may not be a new feature of Bradley’s District 123, its extension into parts of Jasper County is novel. Bradley’s district, which currently encompasses only Hilton Head and Daufuskie islands, will extend along the Savannah River and up to Hardeeville following the redraw.

In addition to shifting Bradley’s district, the House map is projected to give Republicans a supermajority in the House and could significantly reduce the number of competitive districts in the state. The current political makeup of the chamber is 81 Republicans to 43 Democrats.

Due to South Carolina’s explosive growth over the past decade — the state added about 500,000 people, according to the 2020 census — large-scale changes were necessary to ensure all districts had roughly the same number of people.

While the once-a-decade redistricting process is nearly always fraught with conflict and accusations of partisan bias, critics say the House map is particularly egregious — a sign the map may be challenged in court.

The state’s underlying demographics make creating a truly unbiased map impossible, but the new House map is significantly more gerrymandered than even the existing imperfect map, an impartial analysis indicates.

Only nine of 124 districts are competitive, or about half as many as the current House map, according to Dave’s Redistricting app, a popular map drawing and analysis tool.

“The extremely low number of competitive districts — even at a generous ±5% standard — points toward making voters nearly obsolete in general elections for the SC House of Representatives,” the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of South Carolina wrote in its assessment of the proposal.

State Rep. Jay Jordan, R-Florence, who chaired the House redistricting committee, defended the integrity of the panel’s process, saying it had gone to great lengths to ensure everything was done transparently.

“Incumbent locations were considered,” he said. “But lines were not contorted in order to protect incumbent legislators. I can say that very, very clearly.”

The House map splits roughly the same number of counties as the current one, but nearly three times as many precincts, which can create voter confusion. It has 32 majority-minority districts — two more than the current map — but actually scores lower on minority representation, according to Dave’s Redistricting.

Under the proposal, Charleston, Horry and York — three of the fastest growing counties in the state — would add seats from areas where population has increased more modestly or not at all since 2010. Richland County, on the other hand, is due to lose a seat after the merger of the two lower Richland districts.

Ten incumbents — four Republicans and six Democrats — are drawn into districts with one another, setting up potential primaries next year, and at least two districts are left without an incumbent after their representative was shifted into a neighboring district.

House lawmakers who have been drawn into the same district are Reps. Vic Dabney, R-Kershaw, and Brandon Newton, R-Lancaster, in District 45; Reps. Jerry Govan, D-Orangeburg, and Russell Ott, D-Calhoun, in District 93; Reps. Cezar McKnight, D-Williamsburg, and Roger Kirby, D-Florence, in District 101; Reps. Sandy McGarry, R-Lancaster and Richie Yow, R-Chesterfield, in District 53; and Reps. Wendy Brawley, D-Richland, and Jermaine Johnson, D-Richland, in District 70.

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