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The Skinny

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THE PARTY'S OVER?

With lawmakers focusing on the budget at the start of the session, most of the other legislation is on hold until the dollars get sorted out.

That means it could be some time before Sen. Jonathan Paton's bill to force Tucson to switch to nonpartisan races gets a hearing.

Tucson is the last major city in Arizona still clinging to partisan elections; the others have embraced the wonders of nonpartisan contests.

Here's the downside of nonpartisan elections: Most voters in most elections don't know much about the candidates when they cast their ballots. That's hardly surprising; government has become increasingly complex at all levels, so it doesn't make sense for most voters to closely examine the pros and cons of every issue that's out there. After all, that's why we elect politicians to represent us in the first place.

Taking away party affiliation means that voters will lose the one identifier that gives them some idea of where the candidates are coming from, philosophically speaking. As a result, nonpartisan elections often have lower voter turnout, because people don't have a clear idea of who is on the ballot.

That said, we support the idea of nonpartisan elections, because it could prove to be a real game-changer in terms of how campaigns are waged in this town.

In a nonpartisan race, all of the candidates seeking any particular office would run in one massive primary, with all of the voters eligible to cast ballots.

That means that Democrats would no longer need to appeal to the extreme lefties to win primaries, while Republicans would no longer have to ... well, we can't remember the last time we had a GOP primary for a City Council seat. Um ... 1995, maybe?

At any rate, it would change the campaign dynamic, which could in turn change the type of candidate who emerges from the primary. And that might actually increase the competition for council seats, which in turn might just improve the caliber of the candidates.

And that's something we can get behind.


OFF THE DOLE?

Legislative District 26 Sen. Al Melvin, who used Clean Elections dollars for his unsuccessful 2006 campaign and his successful 2008 campaign, says he may be done with using public dollars for his campaigns.

Melvin, a spending hawk who helped himself to more than $100,000 over the two campaigns, says the program's future is shaky. The Goldwater Institute has been pushing a lawsuit that claims Clean Election's matching-funds provision, which provides candidates with additional funds if their privately funded opponents exceed certain spending limits, is unconstitutional. So far, the courts have sided with Goldwater, although the case is still in its early stages.

Clean Elections supporters have been making the rounds at the Capitol, hoping to adjust the program to provide candidates with more initial money in exchange for dumping the matching funds. That's a nonstarter among the lawmakers from whom we've been hearing.

Without matching funds, candidates--particularly those running expensive statewide campaigns--will have to think hard about whether they should use the system.

Melvin says he doesn't need the program anymore, because he's established his name ID.

"The name is pretty well-known now," Melvin says.


ELECTION INTEGRITY UPDATE, PART 348

Some say that attorneys, like cactus, grow in Arizona. A Wednesday, Jan. 14, court hearing regarding the 2006 Regional Transportation Authority election ballots proved that statement may just be true.

At the front of Judge Charles Harrington's courtroom, there were certainly enough attorneys to represent everyone involved. Somehow, there was just enough space to make sure every attorney had a place to sit.

On one of end of the courtroom sat Pima County Treasurer Beth Ford with the attorney from the DeConcini McDonald Yetwin and Lacy law firm hired by Pima County to represent the public official. At the next table were attorneys from the Pima County Republican Party and the Regional Transportation Authority.

In the middle--which was kind of like center stage--sat Pima County Democratic Party attorney Bill Risner, with two attorneys from the Pima County Libertarian Party serving as co-counsel, and newly elected Pima County Democratic Party chair Jeff Rogers, who also happens to be, yes, an attorney.

At the final end of the attorney spectrum sat Ronna Fickbohm, another private attorney from Gabroy, Rollman and Bossé hired to represent Pima County. She sat with John Moffatt, Pima County's strategic planning director.

The hearing was Risner's chance to convince Harrington that he has the legal authority to take control of the ballots.

Fickbohm, however, was there to remind Harrington that he was there to follow the law--a law that she insists doesn't give the judge any legal authority to take control of the ballots to facilitate a recount. He is, instead, obligated to dismiss Risner's request, she claimed.

Legally, the ballots are required to be destroyed--which is what caused this clump of attorneys to grow on the fourth floor of the Pima County Courthouse in the first place. In June, Ford announced to all party officials that she had to destroy the 2006 RTA ballots as required by state law.

Fickbohm told Harrington that what Risner really wants is the opportunity to contest the results of an election he doesn't agree with; she reminded Harrington that Arizona law only allows an election to be contested within five days of the canvas by the Pima County Board of Supervisors.

Risner countered by telling Harrington he was not there to contest the election and reminded the court his party happened to endorse the RTA. He also added that he doesn't believe he needs the ballots to find out whether the RTA election was rigged--he already knows the election was rigged. He then went over evidence he feels is enough to show that something just wasn't right with that May 2006 election, such as an affidavit from a former Pima County employee who claims that a Pima County elections employee told him he fixed the RTA election, and other evidence that shows election equipment was manipulated to change results.

Risner said he wants to prevent any future shenanigans with ballots. "It's the next election," he said. "And we don't believe the court is powerless."

Just when it seemed that the hearing might get a bit boring, Risner told Harrington that the court can't wash its hands of Pima County's election problems and what happened with the RTA vote.

That remark didn't sit so well with Harrington, who did not take Risner's words in the metaphorical, legal-community way Risner said he intended. He pointed to Risner and told him not to accuse his court of washing its hands, adding that he took this case and the future of elections in Pima County very seriously.

A collective sigh of relief may have been heard by every attorney in the room.

Harrington didn't rule on the matter; Risner and the other attorneys are slated to return to court in February to continue the battle for the ballots.

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