Saying they want to promote voter turnout, a Senate panel voted Monday to force cities and other local governments to have their elections only in even-numbered years — and only on two specific days in those years.
But the move could provoke a legal fight from Tucson and other cities whose rules would be overturned.
Clint Bolick, an attorney with the Goldwater Institute, said the smaller the level of government, the more susceptible it is to being influenced by special interests.
“Municipal and school board elections have become exactly that,” he told members of the Judiciary Committee. “The plethora of elections at odd times of the year is confusing and achieves all too well its intended purpose: the suppression of voter turnout.”
He said the experience with cities that have moved their elections to the two dates on even numbered years — one in late August and one in November — has shown that more people make it to the polls. And that, Bolick said, makes it harder for special interest groups to get their way by working to turn out only those who see things their way.
But Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, said he sees something less noble and more partisan in the push.
He said the Republican-controlled Legislature is interested in the issue only because the GOP candidate for Phoenix mayor lost the race last year to a Democrat.
That charge of partisanship was supported by the fact that Wes Gullett, who lost that race, testified in favor of the bill. But Gullett said his support of HB 2826 has nothing to do with the outcome.
Gullett told lawmakers that when he was knocked on doors last year, looking for votes, people questioned 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.”
“You save money and you increase voter turnout at the same time,” he said.
But the move is being opposed by the majority of both the Phoenix and Tucson city councils, communities whose election schedules would be upset.
Tucson City Attorney Mike Rankin said that opposition is based on more than the state trying to preempt decisions made by local cities about whether the community is better served in having elections without other races on the ballot. He said the legislation may be illegal.
Rankin pointed out that lawmakers voted in 2009 to require that all city elections be run as nonpartisan races. That measure was aimed specifically at Tucson where the mayor and council members run with party designation.
Last year, however, the Arizona Court of Appeals declared the statute void.
Judge Joseph Howard said the city’s right to set its own election regulations is not absolute. Lawmakers can overrule a constitutionally authorized city charter, Howard said, but only if the issue is of statewide concern.
“The relationship of voters to their municipality is purely a local matter,” the judge wrote. “Tucson voters have the right to make their own choice in that regard.”
Rankin said the same logic could apply in this case.
But Rankin noted that the appellate court ruling may not be the last word. The Arizona Supreme Court heard arguments last year but has yet to rule.
If the new measure is upheld, Rankin said there are practical problems.
For example, he said, there are current council members whose terms are up in 2013 and some who serve through 2015. Rankin said nothing in the legislation spells out whether these seats have to be put up for grabs early or the council members remain in place for an extra year.