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Cities, counties urge Brewer to veto consolidated elections bill

Dozens of local and county officials are asking Gov. Jan Brewer to veto a bill that would force cities to consolidate their election dates with the state.

The officials appealed to Brewer’s background as a county supervisor and secretary of state, asking her to help cities maintain local control of their elections. They argued that HB2826 would stamp out local control, politicize non-partisan elections and increase election costs.

HB2826 would force all cities in Arizona to hold their primary and general elections for candidates in even-numbered years beginning in 2014, at the same time as state and federal elections.

Twenty-seven county election officials signed a letter to Brewer, urging her to veto the bill. At least 40 of the 76 municipalities that would be affected, along with the League of Arizona Cities and Towns, also sent letters to the governor, according to Ken Strobeck, the league’s executive director.

“Throughout your term of office, you have demonstrated appreciation for the challenges of municipal governance, respect for the value of local authority and hostility toward the notion that Arizona’s diverse cities and towns require micromanagement from the Legislature,” Strobeck said in a letter to Brewer. “It is only with the utmost gratitude for your efforts to date that the League respectfully requests that you once again act in the interest of local government by exercising your power to veto HB2826.”

The election officials and the Arizona Association of Counties argued that the bill would put additional costs on some cities and counties by requiring them to buy new election equipment and print multiple types of ballots, especially in smaller towns. Some cities, such as Prescott, said they already have high voter turnout, while others emphasized that the bill would force them to change election dates that have been in place for decades.

“While it may save the state money, it will just pass those expenditures down to cities and towns, which have some of the same budget constraints as the state,” wrote Chino Valley Town Clerk Jami Lewis. “Please do not place an extra burden on our citizens’ tax dollars by imposing a law we cannot afford.”

The measure initially failed in the Senate, but passed on reconsideration 16-13. It later passed the House in another close vote, 32-28. It now awaits the governor’s action.

League president and Clarkdale Mayor Doug Von Gausig said his town already has high voter turnout, and said there’s no need for HB2826.

“This is kind of a think-tank solution to a problem that doesn’t exist,” he said of the conservative Goldwater Institute, which lobbied for the legislation.

Some cities expressed concerns that the bill might complicate their elections to the point that their counties decide to no longer administer local elections, which they argued would require the cities to contract with private companies.

Cottonwood and Prescott said Yavapai County has expressed concerns that it would burden them with additional costs, which might lead the county to no longer administer local elections.

Opponents such as Strobeck also say the bill would politicize non-partisan elections – Tucson is the only city in Arizona that holds partisan municipal elections – and that city races would get “lost in the shuffle” of the more high-profile races and ballot propositions.

In his letter to Brewer, Strobeck noted that candidate elections in cities are already permitted only four times per year.

He and others also cited the Arizona Supreme Court’s ruling from earlier this year that struck a law forcing Tucson to abandon its partisan elections. The court struck down the 2009 law, saying that as a charter city, Tucson had the right to decide whether its elections are partisan.

Rep. Michelle Ugenti, R-Scottsdale, said recent elections in Scottsdale and other cities that already hold their election in the fall of even-numbered years – cities with more than 175,000 are required to by state law – show higher voter turnout than in off-year elections. She said at least 10 cities hold such elections, and have had no complaints.

“They’ve, from all accounts, enjoyed the savings and voter participation that’s come with consolidating,” Ugenti said. “It is in the state’s interest to make sure elections are uniform, fair, predictable.”

Goldwater Institute Vice President Starlee Rhoades noted that Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell supports the bill. According to legislative records, Purcell had registered in support of the bill.

Rhoades said Phoenix had “pathetic turnout” of 27 percent in last year’s mayoral race, and Tucson had only 30 percent turnout in 2011.

“By far the biggest of any county in the state, Maricopa County has a population that is larger than 23 states. Maricopa County has two dozen cities—more than double the number of cities that the next largest Arizona county has. If election officials in Maricopa County support this bill and believe it will be feasible, we should trust them,” Rhoades said.

In a letter to lawmakers, Scottsdale Mayor Jim Lane said voter turnout in his city never rose above 35 percent when it held springtime elections. Since it changed its election dates in 2008, voter participation has ranged from 60 percent to 85 percent, he said. He said the city saved $110,000 in 2010 due to its consolidated election dates.

“HB2826 … will go far in correcting a little-known problem with big implications for Arizona voters: lack of uniformity in election dates,” Lane wrote in support of the bill. “HB2826 will give all voters a voice and a chance to participate in their local elections, and it will prove a cost-savings for municipalities.”

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