COLUMBIA --- The Senate's top officer said Thursday he can defend a redistricting plan that eliminates a majority black district, in part because he believes race should not be the only factor when drawing new lines.
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved new district lines for 46 state Senate seats with a unanimous vote, with nine districts where blacks are the majority.
The American Civil Liberties Union had wanted to preserve an existing minority district and add a new one, and the group's state executive director Victoria Middleton said their proposal was more in line with the Voting Rights Act.
Redistricting plans have to meet federal standards to ensure they don't discriminate against minorities. Legislators haven't decided whether to use a streamlined process that would take the proposed district lines to a federal judge for approval or go through the more traditional approach of having the Department of Justice review the plan.
Middleton said the plan heading to the Senate doesn't meet federal standards and "if it passes, it is likely we would comment to the DOJ about it."
Federal law requires redrawing election district lines every 10 years to reflect population growth and shifts in the census.
Sen. Glenn McConnell, the committee's chairman and the Senate's president pro tem, said the plan approved meets federal standards.
McConnell said the minority district that would become majority white covers Fairfield and Chester counties.
"We think it's defensible," said McConnell, R-Charleston. "The problem is there's a whole chunk of population up there that's got to go somewhere. You cannot make race the primary and sole factor."
The plan doesn't incorporate a proposal by the South Carolina Republican Party.
The GOP plan would have forced Democratic Sens. Creighton Coleman, of Winnsboro, and Vincent Sheheen, of Camden, to run against each other in a primary next year in a combined district. The same scenario would play out for Democratic Sens. Joel Lourie, of Columbia, and Nikki Setzler, of West Columbia.
The House Judiciary Committee on Monday approved district lines for its 124 seats. Their plan collapsed four Democratic districts into two and four Republican districts into two.
The House and Senate plans will be debated when the Legislature returns next week for a wrap-up session.
Much of the attention then will be put on plans for a new, seventh U.S. House seat. Population growth means the state gains a seventh district. Georgia also is picking up a seat.
Republicans, who hold five of the state's six current U.S. House seats, want that district added along the state's coast and counties near the eastern border with North Carolina. The House Judiciary Committee approved that proposal Monday.
Democrats argue South Carolina's 34 percent minority population justifies adding a second minority district. The ACLU recommended a seventh district that includes all of Sumter, Fairfield and Lee counties and parts of Chester, Chesterfield, Clarendon, Darlington, Marlboro, Richland, Spartanburg, Union and York counties.
The Senate Judiciary won't begin discussing its version of the U.S. House plan until sometime next week at the earliest.