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Editorials represent the institutional view of the newspaper. They are written and edited by the editorial staff, which operates separately from the news department. Editorial writers are not involved in newsroom operations.

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Editorial: North Charleston must fix its flawed city elections while it still can

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North Charleston City Hall Tuesday, July 9, 2019, in North Charleston. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

A few months ago, it was largely a hypothetical that the next leader of South Carolina's third-largest city could be chosen by as few as a fifth of the people who vote in the mayor's race — and an even smaller percentage of all its voters.

That specter became much more likely after North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey made it official that he won't run again and at least six candidates have said they plan to compete for the job. Several more could join the race by the time filing closes this summer.

Under the city's current election ordinance, the winner will be whoever gets the most votes — even if the winning total is just a sliver of the overall turnout. No runoff. No exceptions. No mandate. This unpleasant scenario should finally prompt the mayor and City Council to push for long-overdue reform to require a runoff if no candidate gets 50% plus one.

North Charleston remains South Carolina's only large city to choose its leaders this way. All other large municipalities, including Charleston and Columbia, hold a runoff two weeks later if no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote on Election Day. South Carolina lawmakers should give cities the option to switch to a ranked-choice voting method, in which voters rank their candidates on Election Day and those rankings are used to determine the winner if no one gets more than 50% of the first-place votes. Such a bill is pending but won't pass this year.  

The good news is City Council is expected to discuss adding a runoff requirement this week. But the council can't make that change without first getting voter approval in a citywide referendum. It should do so as soon as possible, because state law appears to allow such a vote in time to take effect before the Nov. 7 election. And just to be clear, the city attorney's interpretation of what state law allows and requires is absolutely not one of those reasons the state Freedom of Information Act envisions for allowing closed-door discussions. Such advice should be received in public, and the council's discussion of how elections should be run should be held in public as well.

This isn't the only change North Charleston needs to make to its elections. Another odd twist is that the city's voters elect all 10 council members at once, which hasn't been a problem in the past because so many incumbents won reelection. But many of them are not expected to run again this year, and that, combined with redistricting, could mean the next City Council is all new, devoid of any institutional knowledge about what has and hasn't worked in the past. We urge City Council to fix this, too, ideally by shortening the upcoming term of five of the 10 council seats up for election this year to two years while allowing the other five winners to serve full four-year terms.

As we've noted before, North Charleston has been blessed with continuity of leadership — with a brief exception in the early 1990s — since the city incorporated 51 years ago. That stability has smoothed over deeply flawed election methods; since there was no public perception that anything was broken, there was no public outcry for a fix.

But this economic powerhouse of a city — home not only to more than 117,000 people but also to Boeing and the most bustling collection of retail stores in the state — is on the precipice of a major transition. And there is no city administrator to provide continuity: North Charleston's mayor is that full-time administrator as well as the City Council chair. City Council needs to act quickly to ensure its future leaders enter office with as much public support as those who run the state's other big cities. Its residents, property owners, visitors and businesses deserve no less.

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