Arizona Senate kills plan to let party activists fill legislative vacancies
A proposal that would have taken the power to fill legislative vacancies from county boards of supervisors and give it exclusively to political party activists fell short in the Senate after two Republicans opposed it.
Senate Bill 1063 would have put decisions about who fills vacant legislative seats solely in the hands of precinct committeemen, who are elected, voting members of a political party’s legislative district-level organization. Currently, the PCs, as they’re known, select three finalists for vacancies, and the board of supervisors from the county the former lawmaker was from chooses from among those candidates.
The system often puts elected supervisors at odds with precinct committeemen, the foot soldiers of political parties, who tend to represent the more ideologically strident bases of their parties.
The bill would have also eliminated a law that allows only PCs from the former legislator’s county to vote in the replacement process. Under SB1063, all PCs from a legislative district would vote on who fills a vacant seat in the House or Senate. In addition, it would have nixed a requirement that appointed lawmakers be from the same county as the legislators they’re replacing.
In some counties, that requirement doesn’t matter. Fifteen of the state’s 30 current legislative districts are fully contained in Maricopa County, and 17 are wholly in the county under the new map that goes into effect this year. But other districts, particularly in rural Arizona, cover multiple counties. For example, the current District 7, a predominantly Native American district that takes in much of northern and eastern Arizona, includes parts of seven counties.
Sen. Vince Leach, the bill’s sponsor, noted that when his seatmate, Rep. Bret Roberts, resigned from his District 11 seat last year, only the 77 elected PCs from Pinal County had a say in who replaced him. The process excluded the far larger contingent of 162 PCs from Pima County.
“I have some PCs that are very upset about that,” said Leach, a Tucson Republican. “Their vote was taken away from them.”
Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, urged his colleagues to consider that the reason so many laws related to legislators have county-based requirements is because legislative districts and counties used to be one and the same in Arizona, a system that was prevalent across the country decades ago. It wasn’t until 1966, after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down such lopsided legislative representation and required districts to have roughly equal populations, that Arizona adopted its current district-based system.
But vestiges of the old system still exist in Arizona law, Mesnard said. The county-based restriction on which PCs can vote in the replacement process isn’t the only one. He noted, for example, that lawmakers also must live in their county for at least one year in order to run for the legislature.
“The problem is all those legacy provisions in statute now create weird dynamics … where folks can be prevented from participating in their own legislative district just because it crosses counties,” Mesnard said. “These legacy provisions are creating distortions in the process.”
The bill still has a shot at passage. Leach made a motion for reconsideration, meaning the Senate can take one more vote on SB1063. But he must convince at least two of the lawmakers who opposed the bill to change their votes.
SB1063 died on a 14-14 vote on Wednesday. All 12 of the Democrats who were present voted against the bill — two Democrats were absent — as did two Republicans, Sens. Paul Boyer and Wendy Rogers.
Boyer told the Arizona Mirror that he’ll oppose the bill again if it comes up for another vote on reconsideration. The Glendale Republican said he’d support allowing all PCs in a district, not just those in one county, vote on the three finalists. But he wants to keep the boards of supervisors as the final decider.
“I don’t think PCs should be selecting the replacement. I think it needs to be an outside source. And it’s always worked well with the county board of supervisors. I don’t see what problem they’re trying to fix,” Boyer said.
Boyer has had a fractured relationship with the PCs in his north Phoenix and Glendale-based district for years. Republican PCs in District 20 censured him last year for his vote against a resolution to hold the Maricopa County supervisors in contempt, and could have even led to their jailing, for their legal challenge to subpoenas issued by Senate President Karen Fann to collect materials for a so-called “audit” for the 2020 election.
Rogers didn’t explain her vote, and did not respond to inquiries from the Mirror. She voted for the bill in the Senate Government Committee last month.
The Senate on Tuesday voted to censure Rogers for recent comments she made at a white nationalist conference calling for people she perceived as traitors to the country to be hanged, and for threatening retaliation against any Republican who supported the censure. Leach was one of the 11 Republican senators who voted in favor of the censure motion, which passed 24-3.
Leach’s proposal comes amid a rash of legislative vacancies. Since the end of the 2021 legislative session, 12 vacancies — three senators and nine House members — have occurred. Two of those vacancies were caused by House members resigning their seats after being appointed to fill open Senate seats.
This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.