Earlier this year, the Arizona Public Integrity Alliance
and a number of individuals sued the City of Tucson over its hybrid election process for city council members. The district court decided in favor of the City of Tucson, but a three judge panel at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision
on Nov. 10. So, at this point in the legal process, Tucson’s method for electing council members has been judged unconstitutional, though this finding is probably not the last word.
The majority of the 9th Circuit panel contends that both the primary and the general are in fact one election process. There is a primary part to select the candidates, and a general part that selects councilmen. They object to changing the qualifying boundaries from primary election to the general election—from residing in a specific ward to residing in the city at large. Both sides agree that council members do, in fact, represent the city as a whole once in office. The majority asserts that that being the case the primary voter has a greater influence in the process than those living outside a given ward and cannot vote for that ward primary candidate, thereby violating the 14th amendment.
The dissent asserts that primary elections are treated differently in many jurisdictions, and that states and municipalities have traditionally been given wide latitude in running elections. They also argue that it is a stretch to apply the “one man one vote” principle of the 14th amendment to this case.
The politics of this issue are pretty straight forward. Democrats enjoy a registration advantage over Republicans of around 5-to-3. This means that with citywide elections they can elect Democrats to wards that are predominantly Republican. The recent election is an example. Of the three winning Democrat council candidates, only Regina Romero won in her ward. In a ward only election scenario, both Democrats Paul Cunningham and Shirley Scott would have lost to Republicans Kelly Lawton and Margaret Burkholder respectively. Obviously, Republicans would love a change to ward only elections.
Many fans of ward only elections are giddy over this most recent decision, but there is more than one fix to the constitutional problem as laid out by the 9th Circuit panel. Were the primary elections made citywide, the problem of voter advantage and changing of the geographic boundaries would also be fixed.
So, from the people’s perspective, which of the two fixes would be better? There is a lesson to be found in the political career of Harvey Milk.
Milk was a businessman and member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors—the equivalent of a Tucson City Council member. He and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated on Nov. 27, 1978, by former supervisor Dan White.
Milk moved to San Francisco in 1972 and opened a camera shop in the Castro district. He was part of a nationwide migration of gay men to San Francisco, particularly the Castro neighborhood, during that period.
His first run for supervisor was in 1973. He was wildly popular in the Castro, the residents of which voted for him overwhelmingly, yet he lost the election. He ran again in 1975; he worked tirelessly at building his own grassroots base that extended beyond the gay community to firefighters, construction unions and the Teamsters. He picked up the moniker "The Mayor of Castro Street." Still, he lost again.
At that time, elections for San Francisco districts were held citywide, as the elections are today in Tucson. So, the man who lived and worked in his district, and whose neighbors wanted him to represent them, was denied the chance by a system that allowed the entire city to dictate who would represent the Castro district. It appeared that, with the cards stacked against him, he would never hold elective office.
However, by 1977, the deck had been shuffled: District elections were no longer citywide, but by district. Harvey Milk ran again and won handily. Finally, the residents within each district in San Francisco got to pick their own representative. What a concept!
Those who argue the contrary often point out that a City Council member's vote affects the whole city, not just the ward. This, of course, is true. But it is also beside the point: The issue is representation, not the effects of the representation. If the effects were an overriding concern, we would have nationwide elections for federal senators and representatives—since their votes on federal bills usually affect the country as a whole. We do not, and that is because the duty of those officeholders is to represent their constituents.
Today, our city wards function more as a tool for dividing up the workload of constituent service than as distinct communities of interest. While we all identify as Tucsonans, our city is not quite as homogeneous as our council elections suggest. Does a resident of Ward 6 (midtown) have the same concern for maintaining a semi-rural lifestyle as a resident of Ward 1 (westside)? Does someone living in Ward 4 (southeast) have the same issues with student housing as someone living in Ward 3 (north of the UA)?
Whether one considers the practical notion of wards actually having their own interests, or the ethical notion of representation, residents of a ward should be able to choose their own representatives—and not those of the other wards.