Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

State Supreme Court should require Tucson ward-only elections

Usually when two parties are suing each other only one side is right. The Arizona Supreme Court Wednesday heard arguments in a case about Tucson in which both sides are right.

Which means no matter how the court decides, it will be wrong.

The Arizona Legislature in 2009 passed a law forbidding Tucson from conducting partisan, ward-style elections in which candidates run in ward-only primaries and citywide general elections.

The city sued, saying because Tucson is a charter city which the state constitution allows, it’s none of the state’s business how it conducts its elections as long it properly follows state and federal election laws.

A Superior Court judge ruled for the state but a state appellate court agreed with Tucson. Now it’s up to the state Supreme Court.

Tucson’s election system (the only one of its kind in the state) tries to have its cake and eat it, too. As was argued Wednesday by the city’s attorneys, the ward primaries are supposed to provide voters in Tucson’s six wards a say over who will represent them on the council and ensure council members give proper attention to their wards’ concerns. But because council members vote on issues of citywide concern, it makes sense to have city voters in total in the general election decide the outcome of ward races.

But in a city in which Democrats greatly outnumber Republicans that system frequently nullifies Republican votes even when Republicans have a majority in some wards.

Take the latest election, for example. Last month the majority of voters in Wards 2 and 4 wanted Republicans Jennifer Rawson and Tyler Vogt, respectively, to represent them on the council. But Democrats citywide wanted incumbents Paul Cunningham and Shirley Scott to represent those wards. The citywide vote overwhelmed the ward vote and nullified the wishes of the majority of those ward voters.

The same thing happened in 2009, though in the reverse. Democratic voters in Ward 6 wanted to return incumbent Nina Trasoff to the council to represent them, but Eastside Republicans wanted Steve Kozachik to represent Westside Ward 6.

While it may appear that the results of 2009 obfuscate the argument about nullification of Republican votes in 2011, the overall point of the unfairness and fiction of “ward-style” elections is still made.

Which is what Attorney General Tom Horne argued Wednesday to the high court – Tucson’s election system is unfair. He’s right.

Tucson should have ward-only elections; otherwise the ward system is just a sham.

But is that a matter of statewide concern? The city says no and the city is right.

It’s up to city voters to reform their election system through changes in the charter, not the Legislature; otherwise the state’s city charter law is a sham.

If the court rules for the city, it will harm voters, especially minority party voters, in the city by allowing an inherent unfairness to persist. If it rules for the state, it harms the city by interfering in matters that are none of its concern (Horne’s argument to the court that somehow Tucson’s voting disease could spread to Mesa if not cured by the statute was at best specious, at worst ridiculous).

So which is the greater harm? Ask the voters in Wards 2, 4 and 6.

The court should rule for the state.

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