State of Arizona v. City of Tucson, CV-20-0244, is yet another battle in the never-ending effort to balance power between the state and localities. Here, the question is, who has the authority to set the time for local elections when the city and the state conflict? Based on the Arizona constitutional concept called the “home rule charter” provision and the reasons discussed below, the Arizona Supreme Court held in favor of the City of Tucson allowing it to conduct local elections as it saw fit.
The Arizona legislature enacted A.R.S. § 16-204.01 in 2018, which provided that nearly all political subdivisions must hold local elections on the same days as state and national elections. The legislature’s intent was to improve participation in local elections because turnout is substantially reduced when local elections are held on their own separate dates. The City of Tucson challenged this rule. Since 1960, pursuant to its city charter, Tucson has held elections for city officials and initiative measures on years that alternate with state and federal elections. Thus, despite A.R.S. § 16-204.01, Tucson set primary and general election dates for 2021 to select city council members.
Tucson argued that the home rule charter provision of the Arizona Constitution protected their election management from state overreach. The provision, Article 13 Section 2 of the Arizona Constitution, was adopted in the 1910 convention and it authorizes cities to form a charter for government that essentially becomes a local constitution. It is intended to give independence to municipalities and prevent state legislature interference with strictly municipal matters. However, these powers are limited—the city charter must be consistent with and subject to the Arizona Constitution and the laws of the state. The issue then becomes, what constitutes “laws of the state?” The Court relied on prior case law to define “laws of the state” as only those laws that involve matters of statewide concern. The Court reasoned that this interpretation preserves a charter city’s local autonomy on matters of purely local concern, but also allows the State the appropriate power to legislate in other circumstances.
Under this definition, the outcome turns on whether local election scheduling is a matter of local concern or statewide concern. If A.R.S. § 16-204.01’s requirement that local elections be held on the same days as state and federal elections is a matter of statewide concern, the statute is enforceable even against the City of Tucson’s charter. In the alternative, if this is not a matter of statewide concern, Arizona’s home rule charter provision protects the City’s election dates from the state legislature’s reach. The state argued that voter participation in elections is necessarily a matter of statewide concern. The Supreme Court ultimately disagreed, noting that a statewide interest in certain aspects of conducting municipal elections may exist in certain cases—for example, those concerning free and equal elections or the purity of elections. However, the issue of voter turnout based on the year the election is held is not one such statewide issue. Thus, A.R.S. § 16-204.01 cannot overpower a city charter allowing local elections. Justice Bolick dissented, arguing Article 13 Section 2 of the Arizona Constitution should be interpreted by its plain language which would invalidate a local charter when it conflicts with state law. Though Arizona’s Supreme Court has now ruled on this issue, it may be one that is far from settled.