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9:04 PM Sun, Dec. 09th

Legislators want to tell local governments when they can have elections

PHOENIX – Three years after being rebuffed by the Arizona Supreme Court, Republican legislators are making another bid this coming week to tell local governments when they can have their elections.

House Speaker J.D. Mesnard contends that this time lawmakers will convince the justices to let them do what they want. And the Chandler Republican is depending, at least in part, on some new verbiage to explain to the court why lawmakers are doing what they’re doing.

Tucson City Attorney Mike Rankin, who successfully got the high court to void prior legislative attempts to tell cities how and when to run their election, said this new effort will meet the same fate, no matter how lawmakers dress up HB 2604 with claims of justification.

Arizona law generally requires that elections be conducted only in even-numbered years, and only on four specific days. The premise behind that is the argument that consolidating all federal, state, local and school issues onto the same ballots improves turnout and saves local voters the cost of running a separate election.

In 2012, legislators voted to force the issue with cities that have been scheduling their elections as they wish. But that effort was voided by the the state Court of Appeals which concluded – and the Supreme Court affirmed without comment – that when it comes to the state’s 19 charter cities, lawmakers have no power.

Appellate Judge Michael Miller who wrote that decision said Tucson and Phoenix presented valid arguments to keep their odd-year elections.

“An off-cycle election allows the city to obtain the full focus of the electorate,’’ he wrote. Miller said it also insulated the local elections from the “influence of partisan issues that are inevitably interwoven with federal, state and county elections.’’

Miller also said having separate city elections also ensures local candidates do not have to compete with state and national candidates for donations to get their messages out.

There’s an even older precedent of the state’s high court voiding a different attempt to force Tucson to change how it elects its mayor and council members. The justices said the Arizona Constitution makes it clear that local elections are matters of strictly local concern and that residents of charter cities can pretty much decide how to run those elections.

Mesnard, however, thinks he’s found a loophole of sorts in those rulings: A claim for legitimacy in state intervention. It would put into law a declaration that having consolidated elections “is a matter of statewide concern to increase voter participation in elections.’