With a legal challenge pending, consolidated elections still isn’t a sure thing

Hank Stephenson//May 2, 2013

With a legal challenge pending, consolidated elections still isn’t a sure thing

Hank Stephenson//May 2, 2013

Although cities are concerned about how they will comply with the changes resulting from consolidated elections, all the worry may be for naught, at least for charter cities, if a legal challenge against the law is successful.

Following the enactment of the consolidated elections law, the cities of Tucson and Phoenix filed a legal challenge to the law, arguing that it conflicts with the cities’ charters, which grant them autonomy to conduct their elections as they see fit.

The case went up for oral arguments in Pima County Superior Court on April 29.

At the heart of the issue are two dueling precedents. One was set when Tucson won a lawsuit at in the state Supreme Court in 2011 against a law forcing the city to abandon the practice of partisan city elections and the ward-based election system.

Tucson is the only city in Arizona that allows candidates to be designated with partisan affiliations. The city is also unique in that it uses a ward-only primary election system, in which each party selects candidates from each region in the primary election, then run in an at-large or city-wide election during the general election.

In that case, Tucson v. Arizona, the court stated that the autonomy preserved for charter cities by Arizona’s Constitution allows Tucson voters to continue electing their council members under the partisan and ward-based primary systems.

However, in its decision, the court cited a 1997 Supreme Court case in which Tucson fought a state law requiring the city to hold its elections on one of four dates per year. In that case, the court decided that there is a statewide interest in specifying uniform election dates for municipal elections.

“We do not question that some aspects of the conduct of local elections may be of statewide concern,” the court wrote, citing the 1997 case. “But election dates, other administrative aspects of elections… all involve matters qualitatively different from determining how a city will constitute its governing council.”

In the 1997 case, Tucson argued that a state statute restricting dates of elections for political subdivisions was invalid as applied to the city because of its conflict with the city charter.

But the court ruled otherwise. In its decision, the court stated that “the consolidated election schedule does not deprive the city of control of the elections… The state’s interest is paramount. The Legislature has acted in an area of statewide concern and its legislation takes precedence over the city’s charter.”