9th Circ. Weighs Tucson’s ‘Hybrid’ Election System

     (CN) — Tucson’s primary voting system unconstitutionally limits eligible voters to only voting for city council candidates within their ward, an attorney for former candidates argued Tuesday in front of the full Ninth Circuit.
     Several former candidates and the Public Integrity Alliance sued Tucson and Pima County last year to challenge the city’s 75-year-old “hybrid” election system.
     Tucson is divided into six wards for its City Council elections, with each ward given one seat on the council. The primary election is open only to voters living within each respective ward, while the general election is at-large and open to voters citywide.
     A federal judge upheld the hybrid method, but the Ninth Circuit found in November that the elections were unconstitutional.
     A superior court judge ruled in December that the candidates improperly waited until after a City Council election to challenge the voting process, prompting an appeal to the Ninth Circuit.
     “Ken Smalley and Ann Holden, two of our clients, plaintiffs in the case, were absolutely categorically prohibited from voting in the primary election for their own representatives,” Kory Langhofer, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said in front of an en banc hearing of the Ninth Circuit on Tuesday.
     “In almost every state in the country, there are staggered elections,” said Judge Richard Clifton. “Why is this any different?”
     “Everyone on City Council represents the entire city,” Langhofer answered.
     Judge Michelle Friedland posed that the elections stagger “balances it out so that everyone has the same vote.”
     Langhofer disagreed.
     “The distinguishing factor is not the stagger,” he claimed. “It’s about representative status.”
     However, Dennis McLaughlin, an attorney for the City of Tucson, argued the city’s election system provided all eligible voters with an equal right to vote.
     “What our system does is allow the ward a voice in the electoral process,” McLaughlin said. “It also allows the general electorate to know that nominee has support in the ward.”
     Judge Morgan Christen asked McLaughlin what would be wrong with allowing all voters to vote in the primary.
     “To get that voice where we have a citywide representative from each ward, we have to do this,” McLaughlin claimed.
     Langhofer said allowing the city to treat the primary and the general elections as two separate elections gives the government too much power to discriminate against minorities. The majority of voters in Tucson are Democrats, making it harder for Republicans to vote for candidates to represent them, he said.
     “If you can control the geography of the primary, you can control the outcome,” Langhofer said.
     Voters on at least three occasions have previously shot down attempts to change Tucson’s hybrid election system.
     The Ninth Circuit did not indicate when or how it will rule in the case.

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