Insisting they know better, state lawmakers voted Monday to limit local elections to just two days every two years.
HB 2826 spells out that, with only a few exceptions, cities, counties, school districts and other government entities could have their elections only at the same time as the state. That means the same days as the statewide primary, which usually occurs in late August, and the general election in November.
The 32-28 House vote came over the objections of lawmakers from both parties who questioned why the state should overrule what local communities have decided.
“Local rule is still the best rule,” complained Rep. Cecil Ash, R-Mesa.
It also presages a legal fight.
Rep. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, pointed out that earlier this month the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that the Legislature has no right to interfere with how charter cities run their local elections. The justices said these are issues of strictly local concern.
And Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix, said he believes the measure, if implemented, would reduce minority voting, something he said runs afoul of the federal Voting Rights Act. Gallego announced Monday he intends to ask the U.S. Department of Justice to intercede.
The next move is up to Gov. Jan Brewer, as the Senate already has approved the measure.
Central to the question is voter turnout.
Rep. Michelle Ugenti, R-Scottsdale, said existing law lets communities have elections four times a year, every year: March, May, late August or early September depending on the calendar, and November.
The result, she said, has been low turnout.
Clint Bolick of the Goldwater Institute said that’s more than an academic question. He sees the disparate election dates as a way that special interests can get what they want by way of how elections are scheduled.
“Local governments would often schedule elections when no one knows about them,” he said, only increasing the ability of those special interests to depress voter turnout by those not specifically interested in the issue.
For example, he said, Phoenix has approved nearly $1 billion in bonds at an election with just 16 percent turnout. And Gilbert approved an $85 million bond package with 6.6 percent turnout.
“And we all know about the abysmal turnout in school board elections,” Bolick said.
He also said there is evidence that consolidated elections work. He said after Scottsdale aligned its election dates with the state in 2008, participation went from less than 35 percent to a current range between 60 and 85 percent.
“This bill would do one thing and one thing only: It would make Election Day uniform throughout the state of Arizona,” Bolick said. “It ought to be a noncontroversial topic.”
Not everyone was convinced.
“I understand that we’re trying to do something good,” said Rep. Karen Fann, R-Prescott, during Monday’s vote. “But it may not be good for everybody.”
Fann pointed out that, like Scottsdale, each city gets the opportunity to decide what works best, whether to allow elections every year on one of the permitted days or only every other year on the two specified dates.
“Why should the state have the ability to force municipalities into something which may not be good and could cost them more money?” she asked. Fann also chided colleagues for that top-down approach, saying they would be “up in arms” if Congress were to make a similar mandate on when states can elect their own officials.
Then there are the legal problems, including that Supreme Court decision about the rights of the state’s 19 charter cities. The court said that is a constitutional right granted to those cities, one that the Legislature cannot override without a significant statewide reason.
In that case, the court rejected the state’s contention that it was entitled to force Tucson to run its city council races on a nonpartisan basis. And the justices said the city’s method of nominating council members by ward but electing them on a citywide basis was none of the state’s concern.
The minority voting issue is more complex and is based on the argument that forcing cities to consolidate their elections with state issues will mean longer ballots.
“If you extend the ballot ... especially in minority communities, voting participation drops off by 45 percent,” Gallego said. And federal law precludes states from taking any action which dilutes minority voting strength.