By Teri Walker –
A bill that would force cities to consolidate local and state elections is sitting on Governor Jan Brewer’s desk, and city and county elected officials across the state are urging her not to sign it into law.
The contested bill would require Arizona cities to hold primary and general elections on the same date as state elections, in even-numbered years, beginning in 2014.
Winslow City Attorney Dale Patton said Winslow officials have signed a letter to the governor urging her veto for a number of reasons.
Winslow has had a lot of success with the mail-in ballot voting that it has employed in recent elections, and Patton said city leaders fear going back to the polls will cut down on voter turnout.
Patton said the consolidated voting schedule would interfere with the terms of office for Winslow City Council members and the mayor, which under Winslow’s city charter start in May and under the new law would begin in September.
“We would have to redo the charter, which we just got through doing. We hoped not to have to go through that process again for another few years,” said Patton.
Winslow leaders also don’t like the prospect of a lengthy state ballot that can include a number of state ballot propositions with dense language.
“Our ballot has three things: the mayor, council and a sales tax item,” said Patton. “We don’t want our simple ballot combined with a bunch of state propositions, because voters can become overwhelmed or confused.”
Municipal leaders across the state have expressed the concern that local issues and city electoral races would be lost in the shuffle if combined with more prominent races and ballot propositions.
“The legislature thinks this measure will improve voter turnout; it’ll have the opposite effect, I think,” said Patton.
The final argument Patton levied against the proposed new law is one of local governance.
“I think as important or more important than anything else is we are a charter city, and the constitution provides authority for charter governments to govern themselves. Now we have the state legislature layering on more state control,” he said.
In April, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled in favor of Tucson keeping control of its partisan elections. In a unanimous decision, the court said charter cities have constitutional rights and “local autonomy” to manage their own elections, as long as their voting systems comply with federal law.
Patton hopes the Tucson decision, along with entreaties put forth by Arizona local elected officials, will sway Brewer to veto the bill. He points out that if the bill is signed into law, a lawsuit will likely ensue. Given the precedent of the Supreme Court’s decision in Tucson, Patton said a lawsuit would probably be successful, but at great cost to taxpayers.
Supporters of the bill say consolidating elections will reduce costs and increase voter participation. By law, cities with more than 175,000 registered voters must consolidate elections, so larger cities in Arizona already have experience with consolidated elections. Rep. Michelle Ugenti, R-Scottsdale, said her city has higher turnout in the consolidated elections held in even-numbered years than in off-year elections.
The cost of overhauling election systems statewide is one factor municipalities and the Arizona League of Cities and Towns have cited in their fight against the bill. They argue cities will have to purchase new election equipment and print multiple ballots, which can be a financial strain, especially in small communities.
“Governor Brewer has been a very important friend of local government and has taken a number of stands in favor of local governing. We’re hopeful she’ll take the same action on this bill, for the same reasons,” said Patton.