Imagine that it’s election day and you’ve shown up to vote at your designated polling place, where you plan to cast your ballot for your long-time city council person.
It’s a city council race in an odd-numbered year, which means voter turnout will be down, because odd-numbered years rarely, if ever, feature the high-profile races that blanket the TV with campaign ads for weeks, if not months. But you’re a civic-minded, patriotic sort, and so you’re ready and waiting to cast your vote.
Then something funny happens: You discover that, unbeknownst to you, you’re no longer in the district you thought you were in and you can’t vote. Even worse, the elected official you’ve been complaining to about issues in your neighborhood hasn’t been your city council person in years.
That’s what happened to one voter we spoke with during last month’s Republican primary between long-time Greenville City Councilman David Sudduth of District 4 and his challenger, Wil Brasington.
As it turns out, this voter wasn’t alone.
An unofficial tally by poll watchers put the number of people turned away at the Precinct 16 polls at about 120 people because they didn’t actually live in District 4.
Some members of District 4 reportedly showed up to vote because they saw campaign signs in their neighbors’ yards, even though their neighborhood wasn’t located within the district’s boundaries. Others even found themselves in a different district than their neighbors across the street.
Greenville County Republican Party Chairman Nate Leupp said an unofficial tally by poll watchers on primary day put the number of people turned away at the polls because they didn’t live in District 4 at about 120 people.
“The Poll Manager did an wonderful job explaining to voters that they were in District 2 not District 4. It got to be where it was almost comical. Voters were trying to locate their houses on a little 8 1/2 x 11 map with a magnifying glass. The Poll Manager thanked them for coming and told them they would be able to vote on November 7. He did it over and over all day long, over 100 times,” said Krista Bannister, a local political consultant with the Banellis Group who worked at the polls that day.
In the end, Brasington defeated Sudduth 1,122 to 772 votes, a margin higher than the 120 lost votes.
Greenville County Voter Registration and Election Director Conway Belangia said it’s not unusual to have voters show up to vote for the wrong race in any district election, especially in precincts that are split between districts.
“It’s confusing for voters no doubt,” he said.
But with Greenville being one of the nation’s fastest-growing cities, it’s a problem that likely won’t disappear any time soon.
Leupp, who lives on the Eastside, said his Senate, House, and Council districts have changed since 2006. “If you live near a current line, there’s a good chance you’ll be in another district eventually,” he said.
Once per decade, district lines are redrawn, block-by-block, based on new Census numbers. The redistricting is designed to ensure each district has about the same number of people in them so voters have an equal say.
“Before the 2022 election, things will be turned topsy-turvy again,” Belangia said.
From 2000 to 2010, Greenville’s population grew from 56,002 to 57,356. But new Census estimates released in May showed Greenville’s population increased to 67,453. The city’s population grew nearly 6 percent from 2015 to 2016, behind only Conroe, Frisco, and McKinney, Texas, in year-to-year growth among cities with 50,000 or more people. Because of the 2010 Census, hundreds of residents were moved to new City Council districts during the last redistricting, which took effect with the 2013 election.
Further complicating matters, Greenville had to contend with shifting racial demographics, changes that would impact the city’s minority-majority districts. From 2000 to 2010, Greenville’s white population grew from 36,984 to 40,732, while the number of black residents declined from 19,019 to 17,677.
While the districts based on the 2000 Census had cleaner, better-defined boundaries, the ones based on the 2010 numbers forced the city to reroute districts into new neighborhoods in order to maintain two majority-minority districts, keep all of the incumbent council members in the same district, and make all four proportionate to each other.
Each of the City Council district’s boundaries was changed in the redistricting. Some districts were more affected than others, though. The biggest changes were around Earle Street and the Haynie-Sirrine neighborhood.
Public hearings were held before the City Council adopted the new district boundaries in 2012, but attendance was sparse. Some of the districts hadn’t had competitive races until this year, the first in recent memory where each seat up for grabs is contested. That allowed some of the changes to go unnoticed until now.
Some of the districts hadn’t had competitive races until this year, the first in recent memory where every seat up for grabs is contested. That allowed some of the changes to go unnoticed until now.
This confusion could be solved if county voter registration and election offices were required to notify voters when they are shifted from one district to another, but state law doesn’t do it. According to Belangia, the state is only required to tell voters when their polling place is moved.
Campaigns heating up
Now that the City Council District 4 primary is over, the campaigns for the other contested races will start heating up in advance of the November general election.
Two City Council races are up for election in November. The District 2 race pits long-time incumbent Democrat Lillian Brock Flemming against Republican challenger Matt Cotner. Voters will also elect either Republican John DeWorken or Democrat Russell Stall to one of the city’s two at-large seats, but district lines don’t come into play because it is a citywide race.
There’s a simple way for voters to check which district they’re in for City Council — go to bit.ly/2tVqQQq or the S.C. Election Commission site, scvotes.org.
Leupp said his party would work with campaigns in November to try to get the word out about changes to district boundaries, and he hopes the Democratic Party will do the same.
“We’ll be relying on the candidates getting the word out,” Leupp said.
The Republican Party will urge candidates not to give yard signs to people who live outside their districts and to not reach out to voters who don’t live in their districts.
Bannister said candidates don’t waste their time courting voters who aren’t in their districts. However, on streets that are divided between districts down their centerlines, candidates may give yards signs to those living on the wrong side to increase their visibility on that street, she said. “That’s Marketing 101,” Bannister said.
But if a voter is not receiving mailers from a candidate they want to support, it is likely because they don’t live in that district, she said.
“A candidate knows who their voters are and reaches out to those voters,” Bannister said, “If you’re not receiving mailers from a particular candidate, more than likely you’re not a voter in that district. That’s a red flag.”