You and a few friends could easily swing one of this year’s Charleston City Council elections. This year, half of Charleston City Council will be elected (or reelected) by a few hundred people who show up at the polls Nov. 2.
You weren’t one of the few who punched a Charleston ballot in 2017? Don’t worry, most people didn’t. But you’ve got another chance this year, so listen up.
The fact is, if you and your buddies live in West Ashley, downtown, or on James Island, there’s at least an 85% chance each of y’all didn’t vote in the last city council election. (Assuming, of course, they’re all registered to vote.)
Municipal elections in Charleston County are held in odd-numbered years, which means local races in Mount Pleasant, Summerville, North Charleston, Charleston and elsewhere are usually elected when there’s nothing else on the ballot. Off-year elections have some advantages, but are not without tradeoffs.
Yes, it does let candidates debate local issues without competing against statewide or presidential candidates for attention and advertising airtime. That means campaigns can cost less, making it easier for candidates to run without having to pay consultants and spend time dialing for dollars.
But in practice, it means a fraction of Charleston County residents vote for the people who represent them and favors incumbents looking to skate to reelection on name recognition.
In Charleston City Council District 6, a total of 828 people voted on election day in 2017. Challenger Amy Brennan edged out incumbent Councilman William Dudley Gregorie by a single vote — that, with seven write-ins, forced a runoff election. Two weeks later, Gregorie mustered enough support to win by 31 votes. Neither candidate got more than 500 votes in either election.
In District 10, would-be Councilman Harry Griffin eventually won by first losing a three-way race by 37 votes, before winning the runoff against Summer Massey. After scoring 403 voters’ support on election day, 446 voted for him in the runoff.
Griffin is up for reelection and has a challenger this year. Gregorie is unopposed.
With the mayoral race on the ballot when the other half of Charleston City Council is up for reelection, turnout doubles in competitive races.
When Councilman Ross Appel knocked off incumbent Bill Moody in 2019, he earned 2,084 votes by himself. That’s more than double the total turnout for Gregorie’s and Griffin’s 2017 races, and more than 10 times the measly 204 votes Rodney Williams got in 2013 that won him a four-year term on Charleston City Council.
Even Charleston County School Board, which now elects its members in even-numbered years, drew thousands of votes per district when voters lined up last year with the presidential election at the top of the ballot. Board Trustee Courtney Waters earned almost 64,000 votes in 2020, more than double the total turnout of the Charleston mayoral election a year earlier.
As do-nothing legislators continually get reelected at the state and national level with seemingly little regard for their constituents, it’s easy to feel like your voice doesn’t matter. But at the local level, the power of the ballot is real.
So, make sure you’re registered to vote by Oct. 3 at scvotes.org. Then, get some friends, and go vote Nov. 2.