Senators vote to allow voters to decide how Tucson residents elect council

Senators vote to allow voters to decide how Tucson residents elect council

Wadsack, Kern, Senate, Bennett, Tucson, Arizona Constitution, Phoenix, Coolidge, Prescott, Sundareshan, Shope
Republican Senators Anthony Kern and Justine Wadsack, confer last month on the Senate floor. Senators on March 6 approved Wadsack’s bill, SCR 1027, which seeks to put a provision into the state constitution that says there are only two methods by which councils can be elected: either on at at-large basis or on a district basis. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

State senators voted Monday to let voters across Arizona decide how Tucson residents get to elect members of their city council.

SCR 1027, approved on a party-line vote, seeks to put a provision into the state constitution that says there are only two methods by which councils can be elected: either on at at-large basis or on a district basis. More to the point, that second method could be used only if the voting is limited to those people who live in each individual district.

And it’s no secret whose practices Sen. Justine Wadsack, R-Tucson, has in her sites.

Only her home city has a modified ward system where council members are nominated by district but have to survive a city-wide general election. And Wadsack acknowledged during debate that only Tucson would be affected.

All that goes to objections, largely by Republicans, to Tucson’s unique “modified ward” system, something approved by city voters as part of their power being a charter city entitled to make decisions on matters of strictly local concern.

Under that system, candidates are nominated in each of the city’s six districts by each political party. But in the general election, the nominees are elected on a city-wide basis.

Proponents say this ensures that each district has a local representative but that it also be responsive to city-wide needs.

Wadsack said the system is unfair.

“We don’t have fair elections,” she said during earlier debate on the measure. “Our council members are being voted for by voters that are far outside of their area of interest.”

But there’s a political component to all this.

Democrats outnumber Republicans on a city-wide basis by a margin of two to one. And that has made it difficult for a Republican nominated from any district to survive a general election.

In fact, there currently are no Republicans on the city council.

Sundareshan, Wadsack, Senate, Tucson, voters, wards
Sen. Priya Sundareshan, D-Tucson

On Monday, Democratic Sen. Priya Sundareshan, also of Tucson, said lawmakers should butt out.

“The city of Tucson should govern as the city of Tucson does,” she said. “If the voters of the city of Tucson want to amend the method by which they conduct elections, they have that opportunity.”

But Sundareshan said the problems with SCR 1027 go beyond lawmakers seeking to interfere with Tucson’s method of electing council members.

The Arizona Supreme Court has repeatedly slapped down multiple efforts by the Republican-controlled measure to tell Tucson how to run its elections. The justices said that’s because of its constitutional status as a charter city.

SCR 1027 seeks to get around that by amending the Arizona Constitution to say that, regardless of everything else, no city — charter or otherwise — can have a modified ward system.

But here’s the thing.

While lawmakers can propose constitutional amendments, changes can be made only if approved by a majority of voters at a statewide general election.

Sundareshan said that would allow “voters of the entire state to opine on and prohibit how one particular city does its elections.” And that, she said, is unfair.

The measure that now goes to the full House actually would have an impact on not just Tucson but on the state’s more than 90 other cities and towns.

An amendment added to the proposal would preclude any community from having “ranked choice voting,” a system by which voters rate which candidates they support first, second, third and beyond.

Then, if a voter’s first choice is not among the top vote-getters to qualify for a runoff, the voter’s second choice gets the vote. And it goes on and on until only one candidate remains.

No Arizona community currently uses that system.

But it is being pushed by those who say that the current method of forcing voters to choose between only the contenders nominated by each party tends to result in polarized choices. Ranked choice voting, they contend, tends to result in the election of more moderate candidates.

Monday’s Senate action comes after Wadsack could not round up the votes for SCR 1023, a broader proposal which would have abolished the right of cities to form their own charters.

But her original plan ran into trouble when GOP lawmakers who represent Prescott and Casa Grande, both cities with their own charters, refused to undermine their own voters’ interests simply to help get more Republicans elected in Tucson.

Still, SCR 1023 may not yet be dead.

Wadsack said that Sens. Ken Bennett of Prescott and T.J. Shope of Coolidge have said they will support her broader measure — but only if it can be amended to leave their cities alone and affect only cities of more than 500,000, meaning Tucson and Phoenix. No date has been set for the Senate to reconsider that measure.