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Appeals court frees Arizona cities to hold elections when they want

vote-620Phoenix, Tucson and the state’s 17 other charter cities can have their local elections pretty much when they want, no matter what state legislators say, the Arizona Court of Appeals has ruled.

The three-judge panel said a 2012 law requiring cities to have their elections only in even-numbered years is trumped by state constitutional provisions allowing charter cities to govern the manner of their own elections.

Most cities in Arizona – including Scottsdale, Tempe, Chandler, Mesa, Glendale and Peoria – are charter cities.

Judge Michael Miller, writing for the unanimous three-judge panel, acknowledged that lawmakers cited various reasons for wanting cities to have their elections at the same time as federal, state, legislative, county and school board candidates are on the ballot.

That includes saving local taxpayers the cost of a separate election. But Miller said that’s none of the state’s concern.

“If only city costs are implicated, then the Arizona Constitution delegates to the city’s voters to determine whether its costs actually would decrease and, if so, whether the decrease is worth the trade-off in loss of off-cycle election benefits,” the judge wrote.

And Miller said attorneys for Tucson, who challenged the law, and those of Phoenix that joined the case, presented arguments in favor of keeping their odd-year elections.

“An off-cycle election allows a city to obtain the full focus of the electorate,” Miller wrote. And he said it also insulated the process from the “influence of partisan issues that are inevitably interwoven with federal, state and county elections.”

Miller said having separate city elections also ensures that local candidates do not have to compete with state and national candidates for donations to get their messages out.

“Even if the candidates receive sufficient resources, it may be more difficult or expensive to use those resources for election advertising during general elections,” he wrote.

There was no immediate response from the Attorney General’s Office about a possible appeal to the state Supreme Court.

The 2012 law was pushed by the Goldwater Institute.

Attorney Clint Bolick said consolidated elections mean more people make it to the polls. And Bolick said that makes it harder for special interest groups to get their way by working to turn out only those who see things their way.

But Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, said he saw something less noble and more partisan in the push: He said the Republican-controlled Legislature is interested in the issue only because the GOP candidate for Phoenix mayor in 2011 lost the race last year to a Democrat.

That charge of partisanship was underscored by the fact Wes Gullett, who lost that race, testified in favor of the bill.
Gullett said his support has nothing to do with his mayoral defeat. Instead he said it was that when he knocked on doors looking for votes people questioned why there was an election in an odd-numbered year.

Miller acknowledged that a decision by a city to hold an off-cycle election might affect voter turnout. But he said there is no agreement on whether it depresses it.

Tucson City Attorney Mike Rankin, in unsuccessfully urging Brewer to veto the 2012 law, pointed out that state law requires federal and state races to be placed first on the ballot.

Rankin said forcing consolidated elections would result in “the local issues being on Page 20 before anybody gets to them.” And he said pushing those local races the bottom would result in voters losing interest — and not finishing the ballot — before they get to those local races.

Forcing a change to even-numbered years also raised other issues.

One is that there are candidates in office now whose terms end in odd-number years. That raised questions of whether they simply would have another year added to their terms to make them end in even-number years.

The appellate judges also noted this isn’t the first time Arizona lawmakers have tried to tinker with local elections.

In 2009 the Legislature voted to forbid cities from having partisan elections for mayor and council. That same law would have voided Tucson’s modified ward system in which council candidates are nominated from each ward but elected citywide.

But the Arizona Supreme Court voided that law in 2012, ruling the Arizona Constitution gives charter cities special rights to control their own local matters.

Charter cities in Arizona:

Casa Grande
– Source: League of Arizona Cities and Towns

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