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Brewer signs consolidated elections bill over objections by cities

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, speaks during an interview from her office, Wednesday, May 9, 2012, at the Capitol in Phoenix. Brewer says a contraception coverage bill now on her desk is improved since when she voiced reservations about an earlier version as being intrusive. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Despite a flood of letters from cities and towns opposing the bill, Gov. Jan Brewer today signed legislation requiring municipalities to consolidate their elections with the state.

HB2826 requires cities to hold their mayoral and council elections in August and November of even-numbered years, the same times Arizonans vote for congressional, legislative and statewide candidates.

Under the new law, cities and other political subdivisions of the state must begin holding consolidated elections in 2014.

The bill exempts special taxing districts, as well as special elections and recall elections.

Brewer, who has often backed local government against legislative attempts to impose state mandates, acknowledged the opposition many cities had to the bill. But she noted in her signing letter that many cities used the same arguments against a bill passed by the Legislature in 1996 – her last year in the Senate – and said their concerns turned out to be unfounded.

The governor said consolidated election dates are a matter of statewide concern, and agreed with supporters that it would increase voter turnout and reduce taxpayer cost for elections.

“While governmental entities and local election officials affected by this bill have expressed concerns about ballot lengths and increased costs, these were the same arguments raised when the Legislature first enacted the consolidated election schedule and time has shown that it has not hindered the election process,” Brewer wrote.

Rep. Michelle Ugenti, the bill’s sponsor, said the new law will not only reduce costs and increase voter turnout, but diminish the clout that ”special interests,” namely labor unions, have on municipal elections. Supporters such as the Goldwater Institute, which lobbied for the bill, have long accused unions of using low voter in city elections to help pro-union candidates.

“This truly is your anti-union bill, because now special interests can’t take advantage of low voter turnout. And that was used as a tool. Now they can’t use it as a tool anymore,” Ugenti said.

Ugenti, R-Scottsdale, said the bill may result in more conservative candidates being elected at the municipal level, but denied that that was the intent of the bill.

“It may lend itself to more conservative candidates, but the goal was always to promote the voters’ voice. That was the goal,” she said.

The League of Arizona Cities and Towns, along with dozens of local and county officials, sent letters to Brewer shortly before sine die urging her to veto the bill. They argued that the bill would increase election costs for some smaller cities, diminish local control and drown out municipal issues in elections where voters will be more focused on state-level and federal races.

Ken Strobeck, the league’s executive director, said he was disappointed by Brewer’s decision. He said the bill was an example of lawmakers inappropriately interfering with local control, a criticism leveled frequently by the league against the GOP-dominated Legislature.

“It’s one of our core principles that local decisions should be made locally and should not be made by the central government,” Strobeck said.

While the bill may increase voter turnout, Strobeck said, it will not increase informed turnout because municipal elections and issues will be overshadowed by state and federal on the consolidated ballots.

“We don’t believe it is good public policy for the 76 cities and towns across the state that are affected by this change in law,” Strobeck said. “When you have a municipal election in a small town that is trailing all of the federal, state, legislative, school district issues and you get to the tail end of the ballot, I don’t think there’s any way that you can claim municipal candidates will be getting greater scrutiny and attention.”

However, a poll conducted in April by the league showed significant voter support for the consolidated elections bill. The poll of 500 likely voters showed 51.4 percent supported the proposal while 38 percent opposed it.

Ugenti said the poll shows that Democratic, Republican and independent voters support consolidated elections. Opposition to the proposal comes primarily from “bureaucrats in the cities,” she said.

Strobeck said he did not believe the poll did not “delve into the details” of the proposal, and said it was a lone question at the end of a lengthy poll on other municipal issues.

Cities of 175,000 or more people were already required by state law to hold their candidate elections in August and November. Several cities, such as Glendale, Mesa and Scottsdale, hold their elections in August and November of even-numbered years.

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