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'Ward-only' initiative falls short, won't go to Tucson voters

A citizen initiative to change Tucson's City Council election system fell far short of enough signatures to get on the November ballot, organizers said.

The "Tucson Ward-Only Voting" measure, an election change supported mainly by local Republicans, needed the support of nearly 10,000 city voters on signed petitions, with a deadline of July 5.

Wednesday night, backers acknowledged that they weren't going to make it.

"Somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000" signatures were gathered on petitions returned to organizers, said John Holden, who with his wife Ann Holden had launched the drive to change the City Charter last December.

No local Republican heavy hitters stepped up to back the amendment to the Charter, which essentially functions as Tucson's constitution.

The effort managed to raise only $2,300 overall, and just $140 since April 1, campaign finance documents showed. The slender contributions to put the issue on the ballot were despite the years-long fulminations by local Republicans, many of whom have claimed that they are "disenfranchised" by the structure of election in the city. Tucson is dominated by Democrats, who outnumber GOP members 117,000 to 59,000, with 82,000 non-party voters in the city. No Republican candidates are running for mayor, meaning no citywide standard-bearer will lead the party in this fall's election.

Holden posted on Facebook a "a great THANK YOU to the loyal followers who were able to collect signatures in the effort."

"Every signature was valuable, but we were unable to collect the required 9,241 valid signatures to place the issue before the voters in November," he said.

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Most initiative campaigns aim to collect 25 percent or more above the required minimum number of petitions, as a good number of signatures are generally found to be invalid.

Holden said backers should call on the City Council to put the matter to a vote anyway.

"There may well be a way to continue the pressure to bring about more locally responsive leadership for the city of Tucson," he said.

Under Tucson's hybrid system, candidates for the City Council are nominated by ward in partisan primaries, and then run on a partisan basis in the general election.

With six wards, only three of the seats are up for election during any one cycle. This year, Wards 1, 2 and 4 are seeing elections, along with the citywide mayoral race. Tucson's elections are held in odd-numbered years under the City Charter

Local Republicans have previously used the courts and state Legislature to attempt to change that system.

In 2013, a state law was struck down that attempted to move Tucson's elections to even-numbered years, to coincide with state and federal cycles. The Legislature again passed a law to push Tucson to move its elections this year.

In 2015, a three-judge panel 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Tucson's "odd" system was unconstitutional, but a review by the full 11-member panel of judges upheld the system the next year, rejecting Republican claims that it violates the one-person, one-vote principle.

After that 2015 decision, a pair of losing Republican Council candidates attempted to sue the city to have themselves declared the winners anyway. A local judge dismissed their claims.

The full 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in 2016 that the system for municipal elections – in which council members are first nominated by party in ward races and then run at-large – is allowed under the federal system that “permits ‘innovation and experimentation’” that can “vary greatly across the country.”

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“Tucson’s hybrid system represents a careful, longstanding choice, twice affirmed by voters, as to how best to achieve a city council with members who represent Tucson as a whole but reflect and understand all of the city’s wards,” Judge Marsha Berzon wrote in the court’s unanimous opinion.

Berzon noted that at least two other states in the circuit, Washington and Nevada, have local elections that follow a hybrid model. And the court also found that the system applies to all voters does not overburden one group of voters over others.

“Ultimately, every voter has an equal opportunity to vote in their own ward’s primary every four years and in the general election every two years,” the judge wrote. “As is constitutionally required, then, every voter in Tucson has the same voting power as every other voter in the primary and general city council elections.”

In 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of a challenge to that decision, ending the years-long court battle.

Tucson has used the hybrid election system since adopting its charter in 1929. Under that system, voters elect candidates in partisan ward-level primaries, and winning candidates from both parties advance to a citywide general election.

Only ward residents can vote in the primaries for their ward, but all voters in the city can cast ballots in the general election for the three seats to be filled that year.

Attempts to change the process have twice failed at the polls, with city voters rejecting a 1991 proposal to create ward-based general elections and a 1993 attempt to make the city elections nonpartisan.

Despite the GOP complaints, in recent years the Republicans elected to the Council have often come from wards dominated by Democrats, with the candidates only winning due to the citywide vote in the general election.

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