Chamber Urges Changes to City Council Voting Regulations

Chamber Urges Changes to City Council Voting Regulations

Mike-Varney_Tucson-Metro-Chamber_borderOn Tuesday, November 3, voters in the City of Tucson re-elected three incumbent City Council members according to the City’s current voting system that features ward-only primary elections and at-large (citywide) general elections.

On Monday, November 9, a three-judge panel from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals handed down a decision stating that Tucson’s ward-only primary election and at-large general election system is unconstitutional because it violates the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment.

On Tuesday, November 10, we learned that voters in two of the wards in question actually gave the majority of their votes to the challengers in their respective wards.  However, the two incumbents were “re-elected” because votes from voters in the other four wards overcame the advantage the challengers had earned in their own wards.  In other words, voters from outside the wards where the challengers won overrode the preferences of the voters in the wards that wanted a change in leadership.  And this is not the first time this has happened.

So let’s draw some comparisons:

  •  Let’s say the state ran its elections the same way Tucson does.  You would vote for your preferred state representative or state senate candidate in the primary election and then the entire state votes on your representative and senator in the general election.  Due to the heavy presence of Republicans in the Phoenix area and statewide, the likelihood of a Democrat being elected to the legislature would be zero.

None of us would call these examples “fair”, but the City of Tucson still considers its system to be “fair” and defends the screwy ward-only primary/at-large general concept in court.

For about a year and a half, a group of citizens appointed by current elected leaders served on a panel called the Charter Review Committee.  Their task was to examine the 1929-era City of Tucson charter and modernize it.  Due to their efforts and due to their recommendations to the City Council, voters approved Propositions 403 and 404 on November 3.  Prop 403 gives Mayor Rothschild a vote in every Council decision and his presence counts toward the Council’s quorum.  Prop 404 removes civil service status of City department heads, simplifying the hiring and firing process.  The Chamber commends the Charter Review Committee and the City Council for their achievements in these areas.

Ward-only elections were also one of the topics the Committee examined.  In February of this year, the Committee took a preliminary vote in favor of recommending ward-only election systems to the City Council for ultimate consideration by the voters at the November 3 election.  For reasons that are unclear, when the final presentation of the Committee’s work was made by Chairman Kasey Nye to the City Council in March, he reported that the Committee’s vote was a 7-7 tie with a key member of the Committee not available to cast a vote.  Given the tie, the Council decided not to recommend ward-only elections to the November 3 ballot.  Obviously, there is more work for this group to do.

With the latest Ninth District Court of Appeals decision, the City now has a choice.  It can either zoom in or zoom out.  By zooming in it will look at ways to defend the current system, deploy money and talent to continue to deny citizens their constitutional rights.  Legal wrangling may have gone the City’s way in the past, but it is now time to zoom out.  If the City zooms out the obvious will come into focus.  This system of voting is discriminatory, unfair and unjust.

The Tucson Metro Chamber asks the City to see the current system for what it is — not representative.  As the Council, Mayor Rothschild and City Attorney Rankin go behind closed doors in executive session on Tuesday to discuss the court’s ruling, we urge the City Council to forgo spending more time and more money defending the current voting protocol.  Instead we ask them to make recommendations about changing current charter language to give voters a chance to exercise their rights on the subject in November 2016.  It is time to allow ALL citizens to vote for their wards’ leadership or move to a city-wide non-partisan electoral system which is found throughout Arizona.  (It appears that the City’s choices are to go to a system where both primary and general elections are at-large or both the primary and general are ward-only.)  Therefore, we ask the City of Tucson to help ALL of its citizens to enjoy the “one person-one vote” privilege citizens across Arizona and across the country enjoy.


Michael V. Varney
President & CEO