An attorney for the city of Tucson asked Arizona Supreme Court Tuesday to slap back yet another effort by state lawmakers to tell charter cities when they have to hold their elections.
Jean-Jacques Cabou said the whole purpose of the Arizona Constitution in allowing cities to adopt charters was to give them control of matters of purely local concern. And in this case, he said, Tucson voters have said they like having their elections in odd-numbered years so that local issues do not get buried under debates about who should be president or governor or any of the statewide ballot issues.
“Let’s be clear: The electors of the city of Tucson have consistently and very recently have said, ‘We want odd-year elections, leave us alone,’ ” he told the justices, with Tucson voters deciding as recently as November 2018 to keep their odd-year elections.
Under questioning from the court, Cabou conceded that there are limits to local power.
“If the city of Tucson, or some other city for example, passed a law that said only property owners could vote in purely municipal elections, there’s no question that the state would have a constitutional imperative to step in and say, ‘No, no, no,’ ” he said. Such a provision would infringe on individual constitutional rights.
“But the question here is whether the state — and one legislator who doesn’t represent any part of the city of Tucson — can step up and say, ‘We want your elections to be when we say so,’ ” Cabou said, a reference to the fact the measure was pushed through by J.D. Mesnard, a state senator from Chandler.
But Assistant Attorney General Beau Roysden said the members of the Republican-controlled legislature who mandated consolidating elections have a legitimate interest in promoting voter turnout. And he said the 2018 law promotes that concern.
What the justices decide will have implications beyond Tucson. There are 19 communities in the state that have taken advantage of a provision in the Arizona Constitution allow them to adopt charters to govern local matters which, until now, have included things like when to hold elections and terms of office.
And an adverse ruling by the high court could open the door to state lawmakers imposing other restrictions on the power of councils in those charter cities to make their own decisions.
Tuesday’s hearing is the latest bid by lawmakers to exert their will on not just Tucson but charter cities.
It started in 2012 with a law requiring consolidated election dates. But that was struck down by the state Court of Appeals which said that lawmakers had no statewide interest in interceding in what charter cities decide is a local matter.
The 2018 revision sought to get around the earlier ruling with a declaration calling it “a matter of statewide concern” to boost voter turnout. It says cities have to scrap their election dates if turnout at a local-only election was 25% less than the most recent statewide election.
The Tucson turnout in 2019 was 39.3% versus 67% of Tucsonans who had voted in 2018. But the council ignored the law and set the next election for later this year.
But the justices questioned Roysden how any of that is a matter of “statewide concern.”
“Where’s the statewide interest of someone in Lake Havasu of when Tucson holds an election?” asked Justice Bill Montgomery.
Roysden said that statewide interest is “allowing their citizens to effectively vote.” He said that’s the whole purpose of the 2018 law.
But Justice Andrew Gould suggested that Roysden was confusing this with the state’s interest in protecting the individual right to vote.
“Our laws certainly say we can’t burden it, we can’t discourage it, we can’t limit it through either expenditures or overly restrictive regulations in terms of access,” he said. “Where do you derive this statewide interest to increase voter participation?”
Roysden was undeterred, saying the legislature, as “the elected representative of the people,” gets to make that decision. Anyway, he said, the constitutional power of the legislature to ensure “the security of elections” trumps the constitutional right of cities to create their own election laws.
Gould wasn’t buying it.
“Security, election integrity, disenfranchising voters is a very different thing from encouraging and increasing voter participation,” he said.
“I don’t agree,” Roysden responded. That assertion got Montgomery’s attention.
“So the state legislature could penalize people that don’t vote,” he asked, making it a crime?
Roysden said that’s different.
“If you have a right to vote, you have a right to refuse to vote,” he said.
Cabou picked up on that point, telling the justices that Roysden is effectively arguing that having more people vote will lead to a better outcome.
And he said there’s another thing wrong with the state’s argument about the inherent constitutional right of the legislature to set policy on local elections.
“The same constitution that created the legislature created charter cities and created this court,” Cabou said, all of which have a role. In this case, he said, the framers gave charter cities certain powers to be “laboratories of democracy to let them pick and choose how they elected their leaders and structure their government.”
“That purpose would be totally vitiated if the state is allowed to impose its will on the electoral plans of the charter cities,” Cabou said.
He also pointed out to the justices that the candidates for municipal offices are listed at the bottom of the ballot. Cabou said while more people may turn out for statewide races, there’s no evidence that the percentage who manage to make their way to the bottom of the ballot is any higher than in a local-only election.
The justices did not say when they will rule.
Charter cities in Arizona:
– Casa Grande