Unprecedented delays with the census have created problems across the country and are now presenting Charleston City Council with a difficult choice.
Charleston's elected leaders can either proceed with this year's local elections using old voting maps, which will not account for the huge population shifts that have occurred within the city over the past decade. Or they can delay the upcoming political races in November in order to give themselves more time to reshape the boundaries for the City Council seats, which are split into single-member districts.
Mayor John Tecklenburg and the 12 members of council held a special meeting April 20 to learn more about the local redistricting process, which occurs once every 10 years. And they quickly recognized that the city is faced with a dilemma unlike anything it has experienced in recent memory.
The goal of redistricting is to split up the city's population among the 12 council seats as evenly as possible to ensure that each voter has an equal voice in the city government.
Under normal circumstances, council members would have already received the new population data that is needed to recast the district lines. But the U.S. Census Bureau announced earlier this year that it is unlikely to present that information to state and local governments until late September.
That timeline makes it impossible for Charleston officials to alter the district lines ahead of the upcoming election, which will decide six council races.
The candidates competing for those six seats are expected to file for election by early August. That sets up a situation where the incumbents or their challengers run to represent one district and end up living in another by the time the maps are redrawn.
To try to solve that problem, the city's attorneys presented several options for how the city can manage redistricting this year and during the next election cycle in 2023. The biggest decision that needs to be made is whether to move forward with the November election.
Pushing back the votes until the district lines can be reset is a "legally defensible" solution under the current circumstances, the city's attorneys said. But it is just as appropriate to use the old voting maps for the elections this year, and to update the maps for future elections, they said.
"Ultimately, it is a decision for you as City Council," said Julia Copeland, an attorney advising the city.
Charleston's council members plan to make that decision during their April 27 meeting. "The public needs to know what our intentions are, especially because November will be here in the blink of an eye," said Councilwoman Marie Delcioppo, who currently represents Daniel Island and a small section of the Charleston peninsula.
It's unclear what the full council will choose to do yet, but many members voiced support this week for proceeding with the upcoming elections as planned by using the existing district maps.
Councilman Mike Seekings, who represents the lower half of the Charleston peninsula, said he was concerned about pushing the upcoming election into 2022 when Charleston residents will also be voting for their state legislators and candidates for the U.S. Senate.
The City Council races are nonpartisan, meaning candidates don't openly affiliate themselves with a political party. If they ran on the same ticket as the state and national candidates next year, Seekings worries it would confuse voters.
Councilman Peter Shahid and Councilman Harry Griffin, both of whom represent sections of West Ashley, were also skeptical about rescheduling the upcoming election. They questioned whether the census data would actually be available come September, and they worried about artificially extending the terms of the six council members who are up for reelection this year.
Griffin pointed out that challengers are already lining up to run for the six council seats that are up for grabs, including his own. The council needs to consider those candidates, he said.
"One thing that will really scare people is if we start delaying elections," Griffin said. "We're taking a shot in the dark in thinking that we are going to have the data at the end of September."
Once the district lines are eventually redrawn, it could dramatically change the makeup of City Council and the diversity on that elected body.
Rapid population growth in areas such as Johns Island and the Cainhoy peninsula could require council members to create new districts that are devoted solely to those locations. Gentrification on the Charleston peninsula and other parts of the city could also shift how many Black members of council there are moving forward.
Councilman William Dudley Gregorie, who participated in the last redistricting effort in 2010, emphasized how important the upcoming redistricting process was this week, and he provided a warning to his fellow council members.
"Just be ready, guys, because once you change one line it affects every other line," Gregorie said.