The Democrat enclave of Tucson is getting help from largely Republican Prescott in its fight with the Arizona Legislature and Attorney General Mark Brnovich about when cities can have their local elections.
In a new legal brief, attorneys for the Yavapai County community are telling the Arizona Supreme Court they should reject efforts by Brnovich to force all cities to align the dates they choose the mayor and council members with statewide elections.
City Attorney Jon Paladini told the justices that the Arizona Constitution gives charter cities the right to control issues of strictly local concern. And he said elections are quintessential local issues.
But this is more than about Prescott helping Tucson.
Paladini said if the Supreme Court upholds the 2018 law Brnovich hopes to enforce, then Prescott, too, will be forced to move its elections to even-numbered years.
“In particular, (the law) will decrease voter turnout, increase the cost of local elections, create legal exposure and cause other serious practical problems,” he said.
What the Supreme Court decides could finally put to rest multi-year efforts of the Republican-controlled legislature to bring city elections into line with what lawmakers contend is in the best interests of the state and its residents.
It started in 2012 with a law that decreed all local elections have to be conducted on the same even-year cycle as federal and statewide votes. Proponents argued that conforming election dates would increase voter turnout.
Tucson, with its odd-year cycle, filed suit.
Attorneys for the city pointed out that its voters — along with those in 18 other Arizona communities — have adopted local charters. More to the point the state constitution gives these charter cities specific rights to legislate on matters of “strictly local concern.”
In 2014, the Court of Appeals agreed with the city, ruling the law “improperly intrudes on the constitutional authority of charter cities.” The Supreme Court did not disturb that decision.
In 2018, Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, got colleagues to approve the measure again, but with a twist.
This new version says cities have to come into conformance with the state election schedule when turnout in their local elections is at least 25 percent less than in the most recent statewide vote. That logic was designed to prove the claim that lawmakers were interested in higher voter turnout and that made it a legitimate interest of statewide concern.
The 2019 Tucson election fell below that threshold. But when Tucson refused to move its elections, Mesnard got Brnovich to ask the Supreme Court to force the city to comply or risk the loss of half of its state aid.
With the justices set to consider the issue next month, Prescott has come to Tucson’s defense.
“The constitutional drafters recognized that it is in the best interest of charter cities, and their respective citizens, that they be autonomous and self-governing with little interference from the state when it comes to local concerns,” Paladini wrote. And that, he said, includes Prescott, where voters adopted a “home rule” charter in 1958.
That charter requires the city’s primary elections to be in late August of every odd-numbered year, followed by a general election — if necessary in the city’s nonpartisan system — in November of the same year. All that, Paladini told the justices, will go away if they rule against Tucson.
He also questioned the whole idea that consolidating local elections with statewide votes would actually mean more voter participation.
Paladini pointed out Prescott council elections are conducted entirely by mail. This, he said, creates higher turnout “because voters do not have to take the extra step of contacting the Yavapai Counnty Elections Office and requesting a ballot.”
There also are policy issues.
“The Prescott elections are bipartisan, and if forced to hold elections on even-numbered years, the election issues will be confused with partisan issues which are not matters of ‘local concern,” Paladini wrote.
“Adding in all other municipal, county, state and federal elections to the ballot serves only to cause voter fatigue and confusion,” he continued. “The Prescott voters should be allowed to focus solely on local representation and local concerns rather than being inundated with numerous choices such as rating unknown superior court judges, Corporation Commissioner elections and statewide initiatives.”
Paladini said moving the local elections to even-numbered years will result in additional fees from Yavapai County, with city residents having to pony up money for it to conduct both in-person and mail-in voting.
And then there’s a practical issue.
He pointed out that if a change to even years is mandated, that will affect the remaining terms of mayor and council members who were elected in 2019. That, said Paladini, means either shaving a year off their terms or adding a year “in violation of the Prescott City Charter which will generate legal challenges and decrease confidence in our democratic process.”
“The legislature must not be allowed to unlawfully impose its definition of what is the method and manner of local elections,” he concluded. “The legislature has sought to upend these practice bringing confusion, and doing a disservice to the Prescott voters.”
Charter cities in Arizona:
— Source: League of Arizona Cities and Towns