Redistricting: Do counties matter any more?

The shift away from the primacy of counties in the process of legislative representation has been ongoing since the mid-20th century, when the county-based system of legislative representation ended (each county was alloted one Senator and a proportionate number of Representatives who were the top placing candidates on an at-large countywide ballot), allowing for multi-county legislative districts.

In two generations, county boundaries have gone from being the central determining factor for legislative boundaries to one of the least important. With House seats expected to require roughly 40,000 residents and Senate seats 100,000, large urban county delegations of fifteen or twenty or more are expected to increase, while rural districts will be a conglomeration of precincts from numerous counties.

Two other milestones have further reduced the importance of considering counties in the reapportionment process: the creation of county Home Rule in the 1970s which took legislators out of the role of running county governments and a 1990s court case which required weighted voting on county legislative delegations.

This trend has generated some pushback from local elected officials who are concerned that small rural counties are getting increasingly shut out of what they believe to be fair representation.

The concern over diminishing rural clout was key in the lawsuit filed over the 2000 reapportionment (Murdaugh vs. McConnell) complained that Colleton County, a small rural county, which had just enough population for a single State House district, had been cut into 4 legislative districts, diluting its representation in the House. Georgetown County later joined the suit out of similar concerns, as did several other private citizens.

A point of view expressed by some of the plantiffs was when a county comprised just a small fraction of a legislator's district, that legislator would have little incentive to represent that county's interest in the legislature, favoring counties which comprise a larger share of their district.

But legislators likely had little choice in how districts were drawn in rural areas like Colleton County, forced to meet a wide range of criteria far removed from the need to comply with county boundaries. The court's ruling sided with the defendants:

Like all traditional districting principles adhered to by the state legislature, the principle of preserving county lines occupies a subordinate role to the federal *649 directives embodied in the United States Constitution and the Voting Rights Act when the court is called upon to implement remedial redistricting plans. We do not find that the preservation of county lines continues to enjoy a preeminent role in the court's redistricting task. (p. 24)

As the court ruling pointed out ten years ago, various issues will impact how the lines will be drawn, most notably impacting counties with large black populations. Small rural counties will often be split up, with predominately black areas drawn into majority-black districts intended to satisfy Justice Department expectations under the Voting Rights Act and white areas into other seats (though the number of majority-white rural seats has declined considerably). In the state's larger rural areas - the Pee Dee and rural Lowcountry, seats often creep across county lines to keep existing seats from having to be eliminated entirely and moved elsewhere.

Other states have either mandated protecting county boundaries in redistricting by statute or adopted this policy in practice, but generally courts have not upheld these protections elsewhere either.

Given the trends, it's hard to see that we won't hear similar complaints as those voiced by rural interests after the 2000 census and subsequent redistricting, but given the court's position, we doubt there's much, if any, impact those complaints will have upon the final outcome.

1 Response to "Redistricting: Do counties matter any more?"

  1. Calhoun Fawls 16/4/11 04:26
    I know the courts ruled otherwise, but I believe that the idea of one senator one county was in keeping with the national constitutional principles and the concept of a republican form of government. After all, it is two senators per state.

    The irony is the judicial decision was meant to aid civil rights. When you look at things, one senator one county would assist the minority voice more than the current scheme dictated by the courts. Go through the 46. If it was one senator, one county, like intended, then minorities and Democrats would have a stronger voice. Go figure.

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