Progress is being made as the city of Beaufort considers an important question: Should City Council members be elected by district, with at least one of those districts crafted to increase the chances of black representation on the council?
South Carolina's chief demographer has weighed in on proposals by the local NAACP branch to do just that, and now it is time for interested parties and the public to weigh in, as well.
And the issue deserves more than a reflexive response.
Currently, the council's four members and mayor are elected at-large. Those inclined to replace that method with districting must acknowledge at least two important, inescapable realities. First, according to state demographer Bobby Bowers, even if a district is drawn to all but ensure minority representation, shifting demographics will make it difficult to ensure such representation indefinitely.
And Bowers notes another hurdle. The Burton-Dale-Beaufort NAACP put forward two proposals, neither of which creates a district with an African-American population greater than 54 percent. Bowers says that a "safe" minority district needs about a 60 percent black population because African Americans tend to register and turn out to vote in lower percentages than whites.
However, opponents of districting must acknowledge inconvenient facts, as well. Most troubling is that the city has a sizable minority population but has not elected a black council member in more than two decades.
Further, even if one balks at carving a district for the explicit purpose of electing an African American, there are other reasons to adopt districting. For instance, wouldn't geographic representation in a city with so many distinct neighborhoods be desirable?
Indeed, pertinent questions abound.
Is gerrymandering -- perhaps extreme gerrymandering -- acceptable if it is necessary to ensure minority representation? What has been the experience of other small municipalities that have gone this route?
Bowers has offered to confer with city and NAACP officials to help answer some of these questions, but ultimately, districting will not occur without voter approval.
With that in mind, and in the interest of representative government, Beaufort residents should pay attention and consider the consequences -- intended and unintended -- of both districting and the status quo.