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The Best of Citizen Engagement
News broke this week that a petition effort in Mount Pleasant to place a question on the November ballot about election method came up short of the necessary number of signatures. Though ultimately unsuccessful, we can all draw inspiration from the process.
For those not following this community issue, a petition was circulated in Mount Pleasant for the past six months that would have allowed voters to decide whether or not to change Town Council elections to single-member districts from the current at-large system. Single-member districts operate the way we elect members of the S.C. House and Senate, where voters choose a representative from their area. Mount Pleasant currently elects its Town Council via an at-large system where voters cast one vote per open seat, selecting from among a slate of candidates.
Proponents of each system can point to advantages and disadvantages; the Charleston Metro Chamber doesn’t have a position on the issue. However, it’s worth noting that every city larger than 40,000 people in South Carolina, except Mount Pleasant, has adopted a single-member districts system.
I raise this issue, not to get into the weeds on electoral systems, but to highlight the power of engaged citizens.
No one would be discussing this issue without the efforts of Mount Pleasant United, the dozen or so residents that organized the ballot petition drive. Led by retired non-profit executive Mary Brooks Beatty, the all-volunteer group represents the very best of grassroots involvement. Without staff or a big budget, this citizen effort collected 8,337 valid petition signatures, mainly by knocking on doors and having conversations with neighbors. State law mandates that petitions need 15 percent of registered voters in a municipality to get an issue on the ballot. In Mount Pleasant, the magic number is 9,195.
A little context: Bob Brimmer was elected to Mount Pleasant Town Council in 2015 with 6,109 votes. He was the highest vote getter in that election. 2,228 more valid Mount Pleasant voters signed Mount Pleasant United’s petition than voted for any member of council.
While the signature drive came up short, Town Council could put this issue on the November ballot themselves and let voters decide.
Even if that doesn’t happen, I hope we all take this effort as a reminder of just how powerful motivated citizens can be. Any of us have the power to get the whole region talking about an issue. We just have to decide that it’s worth the sweat equity.