Election Night

Tucson City Council members Regina Romero, left, and Shirley Scott hug at an election night party at the DoubleTree Hotel on election night last week. Along with fellow council member Paul Cunningham, they were re-elected.

Tucson's election system unconstitutionally favors Democrats, a panel of appeals court judges ruled today.

Tucson's system — a ward-only primary election and an at-large general election — is described as "unusual" and "odd" by Judge Alex Kozinski in a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals 2-1 split decision posted this morning.

"We cannot endorse an election system that encourages at-large representatives to prioritize kissing babies and currying favor in their home wards over the interests of their constituents who happen to live in other parts of the city," Kozinski wrote.

The ruling seems to say the city must use at-large elections because the mayor and council members represent the entire city.

However, the plaintiffs had previously asked the panel to remand the case to the District Court judge, who could work with the city to get a question on the ballot so voters could choose either ward-only or citywide elections.

Members of the GOP, including national Republican committeeman Bruce Ash and several former candidates, sued in April to change Tucson's election system.

The judges said excluding some voters from the primary election based on which ward they live in is a violation of the 14th Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause, known as the "one man, one vote" protection.

Tucson voters chose the hybrid system in 1929 and it has survived many previous legal challenges.

Voters have turned down proposed changes at least three times.

During arguments at the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco in August, Public Integrity Alliance attorney Kory Langhofer said the "one man, one vote" right is about protecting minorities. That includes Republicans, who are political minority in Tucson.

If the majority of voters say they don't want to change the election system, he argued, the court shouldn't be satisfied with the message that "we're perfectly happy minimizing the influence of the minority party."

In the opinion, Kozinski agreed the system favors Democrats.

Earlier this year a city advisory committee tasked with recommending changes to the charter split on whether ward-only elections are a good move for the city. That prompted Ash and the Public Integrity Alliance to file the lawsuit.

"If the City Council won't do it and the charter change committee doesn't want to suggest the change to mayor and council, and it takes a lawsuit to do it - I wanted to be a part of that," Ash said in April.

Today Ash said if city leaders are serious about allowing ward-only elections they should accept the ruling and act to “shred this archaic restriction on how Tucson is represented and move on to better times for Tucson.”

The other plaintiffs were former Pima County Board of Supervisor candidates Fernando Gonzales and Ann Holden, and former Tucson City Council candidates Lori Oien and Ken Smalley.