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Arizona Consolidation Fight Goes to Court

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[Image courtesy of dalecarnegiewayaz]

Last year, I wrote about a new law in Arizona which would consolidate all elections in even-numbered years as well as the debate in the Phoenix City Council about the impact of such a requirement.

Over a year later, a lawsuit challenging the bill is about to be heard. The Arizona Daily Star has the story:

Tucson and Phoenix will jointly ask Pima County Superior Court Judge James Marner to overturn a state law mandating all elections occur in even-numbered years.

The Legislature passed the bill in 2012 over the vehement opposition of most incorporated cities and towns across the state.

Supporters of the measure say the bill will increase voter turnout and save money since turnout is higher in even-numbered years when national and statewide offices are on the ballot.

Opponents say the bill will harm cities since municipal contests will be relegated to the bottom of a multi-page ballot.

Historically, many voters never make it to lower-level races at the bottom of a long ballot, meaning the law could result in fewer voters participating at the city level.

The issue isn't just turnout, however; it's also about which level of government gets the final say in how local governments conduct their business:

The question of whether there is such a thing as an optimum election date notwithstanding, the city is going to argue that the entire case boils down to local autonomy. And it's charter cities, not the legislature, who get to determine how and in what manner their elections are conducted, said city attorney Mike Rankin.

"This legislation directly conflicts with our city charter," Rankin said. "Our charter serves as our local constitution and dictates how our elections ought to be run. And that's important to us because the charter is approved by the city voters. And it's our position, under the Constitution, that the city voters get to decide how elections are run."

Rankin said the case is similar to when the Legislature attempted a few years ago to prohibit cities from having partisan, city-wide elections for council members.

Tucson sued then and the case went all the way to the Arizona Supreme Court, which ruled in Tucson's favor in 2012.

That Supreme Court ruling should resonate in this instance, he said.

"We believe the case law is clear that the state Legislature doesn't get to interfere with that local control," Rankin said.

Even if successful, the lawsuit won't stop some consolidation across the state: according to the article, "[i]f Tucson prevails, non-charter municipalities, such as Marana and Sahuarita, would still be subject to the law, said the Pima County Recorder's Office registrar of voters Chris Roads. Also, there are some cities, like Mesa, that already hold their elections in even years."

Opponents of the new law also claim that the change would yield little of the promised cost or participation benefits:

If the city loses its case, what can voters expect?

Roads said Tucson voters would most likely receive a two-sheet ballot each election cycle.

As for cost savings, the city would experience lower expenses. But it wouldn't be enough to erase the city's perpetual budget deficits.

"It would be a few thousands of dollars saved, not hundreds of thousands," Roads said.

Voter turnout would likely remain the same, Roads said.

Permanent early voting and some cities turning to all ballot-by-mail elections have already increased turnout, he said.

Furthermore, he said, the quality of candidates or controversial issues on a ballot have bigger impacts on turnout than the date an election is held.

This dispute is part of a larger discussion about election scheduling across the country - one that includes special elections and primary dates to accommodate military and overseas voters - and while the decision in the Arizona case isn't likely to settle that debate it will be more grist for the mill.

Stay tuned.

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