Brushing aside local concerns, Gov. Jan Brewer on Monday signed legislation that will limit cities to electing officials only in even-numbered years — and only on two days each year.
And in doing so, she may be setting the stage for a lawsuit.
Existing law now limits elections to just four specific days a year. But it is up to local officials when to have their votes.
This measure, pushed by the Goldwater Institute, further tightens that law, spelling out that the odd-year elections that many cities have will no longer be legal after 2013.
And it says city votes must also be the same day the state holds its elections: on the date of the general election which is the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, and the primary election which by law occurs exactly 10 weeks earlier.
Brewer’s decision came despite a last-minute flurry of letters from city officials who would be directly affected by the changes.
“The biggest issue from the local perspective is having the local issues effectively superseded by the federal, state and other issues that are going to be on the ballot, with the local issues being on page 20 before anybody gets to them,” said Tucson City Attorney Mike Rankin.
State law already requires those federal and statewide races to be placed first on the ballot. That can leave city races at the bottom of what already is often a very long general election ballot, a place that several city officials said will result in voters losing interest before they get to those races.
“I think there is certainly a legitimate local interest in having our own elections not mixed up with too many other things on the ballot,” Rankin said.
Brewer, however, was unimpressed by that argument along with concerns that narrowing the number of election dates will result in increased costs to local governments.
“These were the same arguments raised when the Legislature first enacted the consolidated election schedule and time has shown that it has not hindered the election process,” the governor wrote in a special letter to lawmakers explaining her decision to sign the measure.
And Brewer said she believes it will not only decrease overall costs to taxpayers but also increase voter turnout, with people aware that election dates come just twice every two years.
Rankin said there are problems, both practical and legal.
In the former category is the fact that there are people in office now whose terms end in odd-number years.
He said that raises the question of what happens in the 2013 vote — assuming one actually occurs and that current office holders do not simply have another year added on to their terms to make them now end in even-numbered years.
Potentially more significant, Tucson got a ruling from the Arizona Supreme Court earlier this year voiding a 2009 law which forbids cities from having partisan elections for mayor and council.
That same law, aimed specifically at Tucson, also sought to overturn the city’s modified ward system where candidates for council are nominated from each ward but elected on a citywide basis.
The justices concluded the Arizona Constitution gave Tucson and the state’s 18 other charter cities special rights to control their own local matters. And they said that, in this case, the Legislature illegally intruded into that local area.
It remains an open question, though, whether that ruling will provide the basis for charter cities to challenge this new law.
Rankin acknowledged that the justices did say that lawmakers can step in to local matters if they are of “statewide concern.” And he noted the court pointed to the existing laws about having elections only on four specific dates each year.
“The Legislature could have a role in deciding ... these types of things,” he said.
Brewer already is preparing for that fight.
“The stated goal (of the legislation) was to address candidate election and I support this goal and agree that consolidated elections are a matter of statewide concern,” the governor wrote.
And Rep. Michelle Ugenti, R-Scottsdale, who is sponsoring the legislation, also anticipated a possible court challenge, seeking a legal opinion from legislative staff attorneys.
Attorney Patricia Probst, in a written opinion, said her staff believes lawmakers are on firm legal ground.
“If the reason for establishing a certain election date is determined to be a matter of statewide concern, then a court would likely uphold the law,” she wrote. “In contrast, if the matter is determined to be solely of local concern, then a court would likely hold that the Legislature cannot override the city’s charter.”
Rankin, however, thinks the high court will again side with the city — and against the Legislature — saying this goes far beyond existing law.
“This is obviously more than just saying (that) in any given year elections are limited to the following dates,” he said.
“This is saying you can’t have any elections in odd-numbered years,” Rankin continued. “That’s preempting the terms for mayor and council under the city charter.”
Foes of the measure questioned whether the idea is less about voter turnout and more about helping Republican candidates in some cities.
Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, noted the move comes after Wes Gullett, the GOP candidate for Phoenix mayor, lost the race last year — an odd-numbered year — to a Democrat. In fact, Gullet himself testified in favor of the bill.
But Gullett said his support was unrelated to his loss.
Gullett told lawmakers that the reaction when he was knocking on doors last year, looking for votes, the reaction was people questioning why there was an election in an odd-numbered year. He said consolidating elections on the same date as county and statewide races “just makes sense.”