Phoenix fights Arizona law dictating election years

by Lynh Bui – Jun. 12, 2012 11:30 PM
The Republic |

Phoenix is preparing to sue the state to block a new law that would force Arizona cities and towns to hold elections in the fall in the same years as state general elections.

City Council members who want to challenge the law say it infringes on the city’s authority to control its own affairs and govern based on its city charter.

Some are also worried about the unintended consequences of the law, such as forcing sitting council members to serve at least a year longer than their elected terms to comply with the legislation.

If Phoenix follows through with the suit, the League of Arizona Cities and Towns and other municipalities likely will add their support, league officials said.

But not all council members agree with a legal challenge. Some question why the city should fight legislation aimed at increasing voter turnout and saving taxpayers money.

Phoenix has yet to file paperwork to challenge House Bill 2826, which Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law last month. But City Council members who met in executive session last week authorized the Law Department to defend city charter provisions that require council elections to be held separately from federal, state and county elections in the fall of odd-numbered years. County and state elections normally are held in even-numbered years.

Those opposed to the legislation say it violates the Arizona Constitution, which allows charter cities to rule on local issues and prohibits the state from overriding decisions. “If we let the state take over our home rule, what’s the point of having a City Council?” Phoenix Councilman Michael Nowakowski said. “We need to protect our city charter.”

Supporters of the law, however, say it increases voter participation because fall state elections generally draw more voters. “By filing this court case, they’re saying they want low voter turnout,” Councilman Sal DiCiccio said.

State Rep. Michelle Ugenti, R-Scottsdale, who sponsored the bill, said, “Historic low voter turnout is an issue plaguing Arizona’s electoral process.”

She and DiCiccio also cited cost savings for cities as another benefit of the new law. They said that after Chandler and Scottsdale consolidated their elections with state and national races in 2008, voter turnout increased significantly while the cost of running the election dropped.

By placing their elections onto the state’s general-election ballot, the cities avoided the costs of printing ballots and opening polls only for the city election.

In November, Phoenix broke voter- turnout records with a runoff election featuring the most competitive mayoral race the city had seen in nearly 30 years, but still only 28 percent of voters cast ballots. In the previous mayoral election, turnout was about 18 percent.

Turnout in Chandler was nearly 83 percent for the 2008 fall election, far higher than the 10 to 15 percent turnout in the city’s past spring elections. That also was a presidential-election year. In Scottsdale, three times as many voters cast ballots in the fall mayoral election compared with the spring election four years prior.

Scottsdale reported saving more than $100,000 in 2010 because of the change. Chandler reported saving 42 cents to $1.41 a ballot after the shift.

Ugenti said she is in favor of allowing cities and towns to govern their own affairs in cases that make sense, but added, “I don’t see how changing election dates usurps their local control. I can’t think of what could be more paramount to a healthy republic than fair and predictable elections.”

Cities vs. state

It is unclear when Phoenix will officially file paperwork to take legal action, but its Law Department is researching the issue.

Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton opposes the law, saying those who want to dictate when city elections are held should run for mayor or City Council, instead.

“The public wouldn’t want consolidated libraries or consolidated senior centers,” Stanton said. “Why would they want consolidated elections?”

The League of Arizona Cities and Towns fought the bill, saying it strips municipalities of local control and is akin to “micromanagement” from the state, said Ken Strobeck, the league’s executive director. Approximately 40 of 76 municipal governments in the state are expected to be affected by the new consolidated-elections bill.

Strobeck said the league and other cities would likely get involved with the suit, though none has made any official decisions.

He said Arizona municipalities with charters that establish how their governments run have a good chance at fighting the law in light of the Arizona Supreme Court’s decision several years ago in City of Tucson vs. State.

Tucson successfully challenged a 2009 state law that prohibited the city from holding partisan elections. City elections for mayor and city councils typically are officially nonpartisan in Arizona, meaning candidates are not associated with a political party on the ballot. Tucson attorneys contended the state Constitution gives charter cities unique rights to govern strictly local matters, and the court agreed.

“The local autonomy preserved for charter cities by Arizona’s Constitution allows Tucson voters to continue electing their council members pursuant to the city’s 1929 charter,” according to the opinion Justice Scott Bales wrote.

Conflicting cases

However, Nick Dranias, an attorney with the Goldwater Institute who helped craft House Bill 2826, said there is a conflicting court case that should take precedence.

In a case from the 1990s, Tucson fought a law mandating that elections be held only one of four times throughout the year. In that case, Tucson lost.

The Arizona Supreme Court said specifying uniform dates for municipal elections is of “statewide concern” and overrides cities’ home-rule protections.

The two cases show that cities can dictate the “method and manner” of elections, but uniform dates for elections are the state’s responsibility, Dranias said.

“The question is: What is truly a local concern and what is truly a statewide concern?” Dranias said.

Other cities and towns have been opposed to HB 2826 because of technical problems they expect to encounter as they reset election cycles to comply with the law.

City Council members and mayors could serve an extra year in office as a result. And cities and towns would have to hold charter elections to ensure the documents’ language reflected changes from the legislation. City clerks are worried voters may not approve the charter changes.

Ugenti said the law, by design, isn’t scheduled to take effect until 2014. The lag time gives cities and towns time to alter their city charters and work out technical issues.

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