PHOENIX -- Claiming it will increase turnout, the Republican-controlled House voted Wednesday to set up a system that could force cities to move their local elections to even-numbered years.
HB 2604, crafted by House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, does not automatically void the practice in several Arizona communities of having elections on their own schedule. Lawmakers tried that before, only to have that swatted down by the state Court of Appeals as unconstitutional.
Instead, the proposal by the Chandler Republican allows cities to keep their off-year elections -- but only if the difference in turnout is within 25 percent of what it was during either of the two most recent comparable statewide elections. If local turnout drops below that trigger, then local elections are declared illegal.
The 34-22 vote came over objections of Democrats, who argued the move is not only unnecessary but an infringement by state lawmakers on the rights of cities and their residents to decide what works best for them.
"People in cities want the freedom to have their own preferences,'' complained Rep. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe. "I see no reason to hammer down on cities and refuse them their local control.''
Mesnard disputed that premise.
"I don't see how changing the timing of election to a time where more people are going to be showing up is the equivalent of strangling cities or placing a hammer on the cities,'' he said.
Anyway, Mesnard said, a city's loss of the right to set election dates will happen only if there is significant dropoff from turnout in even-numbered years.
Rep. Jeff Weninger, R-Chandler, said he sees the issue in even simpler terms.
"Why wouldn't they want this?'' he asked. Weninger said when local elections in his home community were consolidated with other races "the amount of people showing up to vote skyrocketed.''
But Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, suggested that the claims of Republicans of wanting to boost voter turnout ring hollow. She said the Republican leadership refuses to even consider Democrat bills to make it easier for people to participate in elections.
One proposal that did not get a hearing would have allowed people to register to vote right up through election day.
Now, Salman said, the cutoff is 29 days before the election. She said that ended up locking out people in the 2016 presidential race who became energized during the last weeks of the campaign.
That change alone, she said, would mean higher voter participation for not just local races but also legislative, statewide and federal races.
One argument in favor of allowing cities to have their own, separate elections is that it helps ensure that local races and local ballot measures get the attention they deserve. In a consolidated election, those local issues end up near the bottom of the ballot, opening the possibility that some voters may just quit before getting that far.
But Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, said that wasn't his experience when he was a member of a local school board, an election that already occurs at the same time as other state and federal races. He predicted the same would happen if city elections are consolidated into the same ballot.
"If you're worried about your trash, if you're worried about your streets getting swept, if you're worried about community events I have to believe that you're going to make your way and just have the strength to get to the bottom of the ballot and vote for city council members,'' Shope said.
Wednesday's vote sends the measure to the Senate.
But even if it is approved there and signed by Gov. Doug Ducey, that does not necessarily end the matter. It still leaves the question of whether this version is any more constitutional than the one the Court of Appeals voided in 2014.
In that ruling, the judges decided that, at least when it comes to the state's 19 charter cities, they have a right to decide matters of strictly local concern. And the judges said that when and how cities run their elections fits within that category.