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Tucson man wants to put city election system to a vote

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Unable to get courts to void Tucson’s current council election system, some political interests now are taking their case directly to voters.

A new initiative drive would scrap a provision in the city charter that sets up current “modified ward” system where candidates are nominated from the wards in which they live but have to survive a city-wide vote to get elected. The amended charter, if approved, would make all future elections ward-only affairs.

Backers have until July 5 to get 9,241 valid signatures on petitions to put the issue on the November 2019 ballot.

The drive is being led by John Holden.

He said the current system, in the city charter since the 1930s, can result in situations where the person who gets the most votes in a ward-only primary can’t win a city-wide general election. In fact, Holden said, the person who is elected may not even get a majority within his or her home ward, with votes from the other five wards overwhelming the local residents.

But Holden conceded there’s a political motive behind it: He said the current system works against Republicans like he who, while they have a voter-registration edge in one ward, are outnumbered on a city-wide basis. And that means Democrats get the last word on who represents each ward.

He said that’s precisely what happened in 1993 when his wife, Ann, was the GOP nominee in Ward 3 for an open seat but lost the general election to Democrat Tom Saggau.

In essence, the initiative, if approved, would legally do what Republican foes of the modified ward system have been blocked from doing by state and federal courts.

In 2009, Jonathan Paton, then a GOP state senator from Tucson, pushed through legislation to void the city’s election system.

It also would have barred cities from conducting local elections where the candidates’ political affiliations are listed on the ballot. Tucson is the only city with such partisan elections.

That measure was overturned by the Arizona Supreme Court in 2012. The justices said that Tucson, as a charter city, has a right under the Arizona Constitution to decide how to elect council members.

The Public Integrity Alliance, representing several Republicans including Ann Holden, then tried a different tactic. They argued to federal courts that nominating by wards but electing at large unconstitutionally denies all Tucson residents equal rights.

In a 2015 ruling, Judge Alex Kozinski, writing for a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, agreed with challengers. He wrote that the system gives an unfair advantage to Democrats who have a city-wide voter-registration edge and who are able to defeat Republicans who may be the popular choice of voters in their own wards.

But the full 9th Circuit had other ideas, overturning the earlier ruling and deciding in 2016 there was nothing constitutionally wrong with the city’s modified ward system. The U.S. Supreme Court last year refused to disturb that ruling.

That leaves Holden and his allies with the sole option of trying to convince voters to amend the charter. He said a ward-only system should ensure better responsiveness of council members.

“If you’re going to run for a council office, your focus should be on your neighborhood,” Holden said. The current system, he said, means that even council members who are nominated from and live in a particular ward have to cater to the desires of voters in other wards to ensure their reelection on a city-wide basis.

Holden said he’s shooting to turn in at least 15,000 signatures by the deadline to provide a sufficient margin for those that get disqualified. He also said he’s doing this entirely with volunteers and has no intention to use paid circulators.

Still, he conceded that most of the interest in the measure is coming from Republicans. And that, he said, could be a problem if the measure gets on the ballot as the latest figures show there are 117,534 registered Democrats in Tucson against just 59,310 Republicans.

“The Democrats don’t want to see a change because (the current system) almost guarantees them their 7-0 margin on the mayor and council all the time,” he said. “So they’re not really supportive of us on that.”

Still, Holden said when he discusses the current system, he does get a positive response.

“They look at it in three words: It’s not fair,” he said. “You’re going out there and having your vote basically from people all over the city rather than voting for your own neighbors.”

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