For the second time in three years, the Arizona Supreme Court has blocked efforts by state lawmakers to control when charter cities can hold their elections.
The justices on Tuesday rejected claims by the state Attorney General’s Office that the Legislature is free to declare that voters can go to the polls only on certain specified dates. They gave no reason for their ruling.
But in spurning the request, the court effectively approved a year-old ruling by the Court of Appeals saying that, at least for the state’s 18 charter cities, when they conduct local elections is none of the lawmakers’ concern.
At issue was a 2012 law pushed by the Goldwater Institute.
Attorney Clint Bolick argued that requiring cities to consolidate their local elections with those run by the state means more people make it to the polls. He 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 Steve Gallardo, then a Democrat lawmaker from Phoenix, said the measure is little more than partisan sour grapes.
Gallardo pointed out that the Republican-controlled Legislature is interested in the issue only because the GOP candidate for Phoenix mayor in 2011 lost the race to a Democrat. He said Republican lawmakers believe that limiting elections to every other year — and to those days when federal, statewide and legislative offices are up for grabs — might result in a different turnout.
Judge Michael Miller, writing last year’s appellate court ruling, acknowledged that a decision by a city to hold an election in an odd-numbered year might make a difference. But he also said there is no clear evidence of whether that actually depresses turnout.
Miller also said there was some evidence that consolidated elections might save costs to local taxpayers. But he said that is none of the state’s concern — at least not among cities where residents have exercised their state constitutional right to govern themselves through charters.
“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.
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. The 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:
— Source: League of Arizona Cities and Towns