TUCSON, Ariz. (CN) --- Arizona’s Republican-controlled state government has failed for a second time to force Democratic island Tucson to sync city elections with the state.
In a special action filed by state Attorney General Mark Brnovich, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled 5-1 Wednesday that the state Constitution allows “charter cities,” those with more than 3,500 residents, to hold municipal elections when they choose, despite a state law that requires synced elections.
Tucson's Democratic Mayor Regina Romero hailed the ruling.
“Phoenix state legislators have once again failed to override the will of Tucsonans in disrupting our local elections,” Romero said in a news release. “Tucsonans have repeatedly affirmed that our local elections belong on odd years, which allows for city-focused campaigns and robust public discourse on local issues that would otherwise be overshadowed by federal and state elections on even years.”
Since 1960, Tucson has held city elections in odd-numbered years, or “off cycle,” while holding other elections along with the state government in even numbered years. But a 2014 law passed by Republican legislators and signed by Republican Governor Doug Ducey required all political subdivisions to hold “on-cycle” elections.
Tucson challenged the law, arguing that the state Constitution’s “home rule” provision gives cities the sole power to set election dates. The Constitution gives Arizona’s larger towns the right to draft charters to guide government, provided the charter is within the state Constitution.
The Arizona Court of Appeals eventually ruled that state intrusion on charter city elections violates the state Constitution. Because local elections have no impact on statewide interests, the state can’t intervene, the appeals court ruled.
After that ruling, the Republican-controlled Legislature passed another law in 2018 requiring synced elections only if turnout for an off-year election dipped 25% from the previous gubernatorial election. Low turnout has statewide implications, which allows the state to set election dates, the state argued. That law also prevents a return to off-year elections when an even-year election is triggered.
Tucson then put a referendum before voters in 2018 to switch elections to even years, but the measure failed and the city began planning a 2021 election, sparking the special action from Brnovich.
Monday’s ruling ends that case and affirms Tucson’s argument that it alone can set municipal election dates.
“Whether to align municipal elections with state and national elections or hold them in different years is purely a matter of municipal interest and not a statewide concern,” Justice Ann A. Scott Timmer wrote for the majority. “Consequently, we hold that (the state law) cannot apply to require a city to consolidate local elections with state and national elections, if its charter provides otherwise.”
In a lone dissenting opinion, Justice Clint Bolick wrote that the state Constitution makes no exception for “matters of purely municipal concern,” a concept at the base of the majority ruling.
“How this murky standard came to displace the constitutional language is curious,” Bollick wrote. “Given that municipal governments are creatures and subdivisions of the state, the default rule is that they possess only such powers as are expressly conferred upon them by the state.”
The latest special action was sparked by a state law requiring the Attorney General’s Office to investigate when asked by a lawmaker to check legality of a local ordinance or policy, said spokesperson Katie Connor.
“In this case, we concluded the Tucson ordinance ‘may violate’ state law and asked the Arizona Supreme Court to provide clarity,” Connor wrote in an emailed statement. “Today the justices ruled elections are a matter of purely local concern. We respect the decision and appreciate the guidance the court has provided.”
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