With fewer black voters, Charleston is going to have fewer black-majority City Council districts. And at least one black incumbent council member will likely lose his seat.
That seems the inescapable calculation as Charleston redraws council districts for this year's elections based on 2010 census results showing that the city's population increased substantially, and the city became whiter and more suburban.
In 2000, five of the 12 council districts had a majority of black voters, but when voters go to the polls this November, there will be just two or three black-majority districts. Districts at all levels of government are redrawn following each census, and the city already has crafted preliminary plans.
For city residents, the changes could mean being unable to keep a representative they have come to know and support. For council members, it's like a game of musical chairs, because when it's all over, someone's not going to have a seat.
At least two incumbent black City Council members likely will be drawn into one district, resulting in one losing his seat. The city and state have drafted three redistricting plans, and each calls for downtown Councilman James Lewis' district to be combined with others.
"We're going to look at these plans, but if it's not workable to change them, then I'll just have to deal with it," Lewis said. "I expected it because of the population decline in the black districts."
The citywide population went from 35 percent black in 2000 to 27 percent black in 2010. On the peninsula, where four of the five black council members live, the total population has been declining for years, and the racial makeup has flipped to a white majority.
In addition to race, there also is the fact that five council members live on the peninsula -- 42 percent of the council -- but just 29 percent of city residents live downtown.
The city must draw new boundary lines with roughly equal numbers of voters, while attempting to maximize the number of majority-black districts in order to pass U.S. Justice Department scrutiny.
As of the 2010 census, West Ashley was home to most city residents, and had more black city residents than the peninsula. That means that in order to create black-majority districts, the black population downtown must be divided into two or three districts rather than the current four.
"We're trying to get as many as we reasonably can," said Frances Cantwell, an attorney for the city.
"We have to do it because South Carolina is one of the states subject to the Voting Rights Act," she said. "In certain areas of the country where there has been racial discrimination, any change affecting redistricting has to be cleared by the Justice Department."
The city's two plans call for combining Lewis' district with Councilman Jimmy Gallant's. Both men plan to seek re-election this year.
"I think there are a lot of questions," Gallant said.
A plan drawn by the state would put Lewis and Councilmen William Dudley Gregorie and Robert Mitchell in the same district. And the city's plans would put either Mitchell or Gregorie in a district with a large white majority.
Lewis said if it were up to him, he would just keep his current council district, which as of 2010 was about 30 percent black.
"To me, the most important thing is serving your constituents, whether they are black or white," he said. "I think that if you serve the people, they will vote for you."
The plans will be reviewed, tweaked, then discussed again on April 26.
"I hope we can come back and present one plan, and get some consensus," said Tim Keane, director of the city's Department of Planning, Preservation and Sustainability.