Tucson scored another legal victory against the state over who controls local elections.
A Pima County Superior Court judge ruled in favor of Tucson and Phoenix, granting them a permanent injunction from a 2012 state law that would have required the two municipalities to hold their elections in even-numbered years.
Judge James Marner said the state infringed on local autonomy by forcing the cities to go against their voter-adopted charters and align their candidate elections with the state.
The Legislature passed the law over the vociferous opposition of most of Arizona’s incorporated cities and towns.
Supporters claimed it would reduce costs and increase voter turnout.
Opponents asserted it would stifle local democracy by relegating city races and initiatives to the bottom of an elongated ballot, where voters are prone to overlook them.
There was also the question of what to do with candidates up for re-election this year.
Tucson elected officials wondered whether the switch meant candidates running this year served a one-year term and had to run for re-election when the law took effect in 2014 or serve a five-year term and run in 20018.
Mayor Jonathan Roths-
child cheered the decision and said the state shouldn’t meddle in local elections.
“The court made the right decision. Municipal elections are a core matter of local concern,” Roths-
child said. “Hopefully, the attorney general will save taxpayer dollars and be done with this pursuit.”
The Attorney General’s Office did not comment on the decision or indicate whether it will be appealed.
Attorneys for the state argued higher turnout and lower election costs are a matter of statewide concern. And that should be enough to override any qualms about intruding on local control.
It wasn’t enough to convince Marner. He said the state failed to show any “causal connections” between aligning elections and lower costs for cities.
On the matter of increased voter turnout, Marner said the Legislature didn’t do itself any favors when, shortly after mandating even-year elections for cities, it passed another law that required some common council towns in Arizona to hold elections in odd-numbered years. Further undermining the state’s claim was the state constitutional mandate that gubernatorial elections be held in non-presidential election years, Marner wrote.
He said these inconsistencies in state policy made it hard to justify interfering with a city’s charter.
An attorney with the Goldwater Institute disputed the judge’s decision, asserting Arizona has a vested interest in upholding the integrity of elections.
“The state has the obligation to ensure pure elections,” Taylor Earl said.
Any inconveniences cities may have experienced under the law shouldn’t have precluded what a court of appeals has already upheld, Earl said — that the state has a legitimate interest in mitigating voter disenfranchisement.
Historically, voter turnout skyrockets when a city election is held in an even-numbered year.
If the decision is appealed, City Attorney Mike Rankin said his office will continue to advocate for local control over how and when it conducts its elections.
Although Marner ruled in favor of Tucson and Phoenix, he took no position on whether the law violates the state constitution.
So even though Tucson prevailed, other municipalities are still required to follow the new law, said Ken Strobeck, executive director of the League of Arizona Cities and Towns.
However, other charter cities could use this ruling as an indication they don’t have to readjust their election schedules.
“When there is a conflict between a city’s charter and the state constitution, (cities) could just say let’s go with the charter,” Strobeck said.
Some charter cities, such as Mesa and Scottsdale, already hold their elections in even years.
This is the second election-law dispute in two years in which the city has prevailed over the state.
In 2009, the Legislature voted to prohibit cities from running partisan, citywide elections for council members.
Tucson, which was the only major city in the state that held partisan elections, sued. The case went to the Arizona Supreme Court, which ruled in Tucson’s favor in early 2012.
One city councilman wonders if the state will ever learn its lesson.
“The Legislature can’t seem to figure out that the courts have been very clear when ruling on charter cities’ right to control their own election processes,” Councilman Steve Kozachik said. “As they did with the nonpartisan ... bill a couple of years ago, they just succeeded in wasting more taxpayer money and making a bunch of lawyers a little richer.”