Columbia voters will be choosing their elected representatives in the fall instead of the spring starting next year, City Council decided tentatively on Tuesday.
That move would have a one-time impact of shortening the terms of all seven sitting members by six months.
The prospect of losing half a year on his first four-year term prompted Councilman Moe Baddourah to cast the only dissenting vote.
Election Day would be the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November during odd years, under the plan council gave the first of two required approvals, after last month deciding against a referendum to hear what voters prefer. City races would remain non-partisan and terms would stay staggered as they are now. But terms would start on Jan. 1 instead of July 1.
Council could make the change final at its next meeting, scheduled for Aug. 21.
Columbia voters are used to casting their ballots in April of even-numbered years, as they did most recently this spring. In the only citywide race in that campaign, 12 percent of registered voters cast ballots and selected at-large Councilman Cameron Runyan.
With this move, Columbia would be joining a march by municipalities toward November elections as a way to increase voter turnout to a time of year when most voters are accustomed to going to the polls.
About 50 cities and towns have made the change since the mid 1990s, said Howard Duvall, the former longtime director of the Municipal Association of South Carolina.
In Lexington County, for example, 10 of 14 municipalities have made the switch in recent years, that county’s director of elections, Dean Crepes, said.
However, sitting council members lengthened – not shortened – their terms, from two months to a year, Crepes said.
The U.S. Justice Department has approved as much as one-year shortening or lengthening terms, Duvall said. The Justice Department must approve any election-law changes in states, including South Carolina, that have a history of disenfranchising voters.
If Tuesday’s decision becomes final, the terms of Mayor Steve Benjamin and council members Sam Davis, Tameika Isaac Devine and Leona Plaugh would end Dec. 31, 2013, instead of June 30, 2014.
The terms of council members Baddourah, Runyan and Brian DeQuincey Newman would end Dec. 31, 2015, instead of June 30, 2016.
“I don’t want to lose six months of my term,” Baddourah said, adding, “There really isn’t any guarantee that (voter) participation will increase in November.”
He and Plaugh raised the prospect of runoffs spilling into Thanksgiving week.
Devine said there is no perfect time of year. “No matter when we change it, there’s going to be pros and cons of each one,” she said.
The president of the Columbia chapter of the League of Women Voters, Rita Paul, had expected the change to be controversial. But only one person spoke Tuesday against the change.
Alan Roblee, who said he has been a poll worker, said he prefers even-year elections because it would save money by bring municipal elections in line with statewide and national elections rather than having separate balloting days.
Benjamin said he would oppose even-year balloting because that would throw non-partisan city elections into the cauldron of deeply divided politics. “The partisanship that seems to have reached a fever pitch ... from the left and the right we don’t want that involved in city elections.”
Staff writer Tim Flach contributed to this article. Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.