Could Elections Law Change Alter the Makeup of City Councils?

| December 19 2012
AZ News

In 2012, Governor Jan Brewer signed HB2826, which requires municipal governments to conduct their council and mayoral elections in the fall of the same even-numbered years as the state and federal elections.  Previously, many cities, towns and counties held their city council, mayoral, and pet project elections in the spring of odd-years.

Supporters of the bill argued that the consolidation would drive down the cost of elections and would increase voter turnout.  Opponents argued that the change was an overreach of the legislature that infringed upon local control and that longer ballots would create “voter fatigue.”

The real issue is that off-year elections have helped liberal interests control the city council (even though elections are non-partisan) and local ballot issues such as expenditure limitation increases and bond elections, which typically fare better in off-year/off-month elections when turnout is lower.  Earlier this year, Republic columnist Robert Robb urged the legislature to pass HB2826 and eliminate what he referred to as “invitation-only elections.”

2013 is the last year cities can hold elections in off-years.  A recent analysis by the AZ Capitol Times shows that 34 cities and towns in Arizona will hold some sort of primary or an issue-based election on March 12th, 2013.  Another five cities will hold primary elections on August 27th, 2013.

In addition to city council and mayoral elections, cities often rely on low voter turnout to pass big-spending packages.  Unfortunately, HB2826 does not apply to these bond elections.  In November 2012, Higley School District placed two budget override packages on the ballot.  Those measures failed.  Unsatisfied with that result, school board members blamed the No on Prop 204 campaign for confusing voters and recently voted to place a “re-do” on the November 2013 ballot.    Why would they do this?  Because special interests have proven that they are able to turn out their supporters for obscure elections while the rest of Arizona voters are often unaware of these off-year/off-month elections.  Cases in point:

  • In March 2006, fewer than 16 percent of voters in Phoenix approved $900 million in new spending during an off-month bond election.
  • In May 2004 21 percent of Pima County voters approved over $732 in new bond spending during an off-month bond election.
  • In Scottsdale, when municipal elections occurred in the springtime, voter turnout rarely rose above 30 percent. Since consolidating to Novembers in even-numbered years, voter participation has ranged from 60 percent to over 85 percent.
  • Less than 30 percent of registered voters turned out in Phoenix’s 2011 mayoral election, and only 25 percent voted in the council races in 2009.
  • Tucson’s 2011 mayoral election turned out just over 30 percent of registered voters.

Whether the change will improve voter turnout in all cities remains to be seen.  However, both Chandler and Scottsdale moved their elections to even years before the change in state law and both cities have seen resounding increases in voter turnout. According to the Arizona Republic:

Turnout in Chandler was nearly 83 percent for the 2008 fall election, far higher than the 10 to 15 percent turnout in the city’s past spring elections. That also was a presidential-election year. In Scottsdale, three times as many voters cast ballots in the fall mayoral election compared with the spring election four years prior.

Then there’s the savings.  Chandler reported a savings between 42 cents to $1.41 per ballot after the change.  Scottsdale reported a $200,000 savings in 2010.

Despite the successful case stories, some governments continue to fight or push for a repeal of the reform.  At an annual meeting last Thursday in Prescott Valley, the town council and management complained to lawmakers that the new law did not clarify whether council members would have to lengthen or shorten their terms since many councils stagger their members’ terms.  However, the real issue seems to be that cities and towns do not appreciate the legislature telling them how to run their local elections.  Mayor Harvey Skoog remarked:

“I wish you would let local control be local. I tell you that (law) was not a smart move.”

Ironically, the length of terms question is something that could easily be resolved by governments exercising local control and deciding whether to lengthen or shorten terms for the first election affected by the change.  Despite the bill being signed into law last session, the issue is far from over.

During the annual meeting in Prescott Valley mentioned above Representative Karen Fann pledged to push for a repeal of the new law in the upcoming session.  The League of Arizona Cities and Towns has listed the repeal of HB2826 as the #1 League Staff Resolution for the upcoming legislative session (page 34 of the .pdf).  The City of Tucson filed a special action for declaratory and injunctive relief in the Pima County Superior Court in October.  And on November 29, 2012 the City of Phoenix filed a Motion to Intervene as a plaintiff in the case.

Supporters of the reform appear undeterred as many expect the next fight to take place over bond elections being targeted for consolidation in November of odd years.

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