| Sean Golightly ∙ Arizona Daily Sun |
In response to a 2019 citizen’s petition, Flagstaff City Council discussed introducing ranked choice voting (RCV) into city elections during Tuesday’s work session.
The arguments for RCV include that it increases voter choice, saves money by eliminating primary elections, reduces campaigning, ensures elected officials are supported by a true majority, and can help break the stranglehold of a two-party system by giving voters the confidence to vote for third parties without the fear that their vote might be “wasted.”
”Council seemed supportive of RCV in theory, but deterred by the complications.
Currently, RCV is used for state primary, congressional, and presidential elections in Alaska and Maine, as well as for local elections in over 50 U.S. cities. Last year, 23 cities in Utah alone notified the state that they would switching to RCV for their municipal elections.
Tuesday’s discussion on introducing RCV in Flagstaff mostly centered on the numerous roadblocks to such a transition. The most significant of these roadblocks is the likelihood that an attempt to introduce RCV in Flagstaff would incur legal backlash from the Arizona Legislature, which does not currently support RCV.
Furthermore, in order to implement RCV, Flagstaff would have to submit charter amendments for approval by Gov. Doug Ducey. This approval process occurs on an all-or-nothing basis, so seeking approval for RCV amendments could jeopardize the city’s capacity to earn approval of other necessary charter changes, explained city clerk Stacy Salzburg.
There are also major concerns that implementation of RCV in Flagstaff city elections would cause the city to lose its contract with Coconino County, which currently runs the city’s elections in parallel with state and federal elections. If this contract were lost, the city would be burdened with the herculean task of running its own election. It would consequently be forced to provide the staff time and funding for all necessary election infrastructure including voting machines, ballots, translations, election staff, polling locations, voter manuals and more — a cost that would ultimately be passed on to municipal taxpayers.
Patty Hansen, Coconino County recorder, confirmed with the Arizona Daily Sun that if Flagstaff pursued RCV, she would not advise the Coconino County Board of Supervisors to renew its election contract with the city. Hansen was unsure whether the voting machines currently possessed by the county were capable of running RCV.
The likelihood that RCV would result in voter confusion and litigation from the state seems too great, Hansen said, especially in Arizona’s current political climate.
“I’m surprised they even want to consider something, because so many people believe the false accusations of voter fraud,” Hansen said.
In her estimation, changes to the election system at this time would invite further accusations of fraud.
These roadblocks are not insurmountable, said Blake Sacha of Voter Choice Arizona during the public comment period. His organization has arrived at a “different legal opinion” about the likelihood of state litigation in response to RCV, Sacha said.
“Nothing in Arizona election law affirmatively prohibits municipalities from conducting their elections by RCV,” Sacha said. “Our legal opinions support that charter cities can implement RCV without further state legislation.”
Sacha also expressed that his organization had conceived of a single charter amendment that could accommodate RCV, and were confident that county voting machines were capable of conducting RCV elections even in conjunction with single-choice elections. In his opinion, there is “no reason” the city would have to lose its contract with the county.
In the 50-plus U.S. cities that have implemented RCV, “nowhere have they had to sever this relationship with county elections departments,” Sacha said.
City Manager Greg Clifton spoke to his experience as town manager in Colorado cities that implemented RCV several years ago. The situation in Colorado then was similar to the situation in Arizona now in that the state did not support RCV, Clifton explained, and without that state-level guidance, implementation was extremely difficult.
Colorado has since implemented state-level guidance for RCV. In Clifton’s view, however, moving forward with RCV in Flagstaff at a time when the city does not have state-level support and could purportedly face litigation that would have “far-reaching consequences” for the city staff resources and tax dollars.
Council seemed supportive of RCV in theory, but deterred by the complications.
“I would like to do whatever we can to make elections less partisan,” Councilmember Jim McCarthy said. “I’m tired of people on the radical left and the radical right. I want thinking people that use common sense.”
“I see a ton of value in RCV,” said Councilmember Adam Shimoni.
When it comes to general progress, “Flagstaff has always been a leader in the state,” Shimoni said.
He would like to see the city continue to put pressure on the state.
It’s a healthy dynamic that could be continued through this issue, Shimoni added, saying, “The state is typically forced to address things through our leadership.”
“I’m open to continuing the discussion,” Vice Mayor Becky Daggett said. “But I hear a lot of significant roadblocks to doing this. I definitely wouldn’t give direction tonight to move forward.”
Councilmember Miranda Sweet echoed the sentiment, saying now is not the time and that RCV would be “better implemented with state and county support.”
“I’m interested in exploring this at the state level,” said Councilmember Regina Salas. “This encompasses election reform and should be pursued through the state Legislature.”
For Salas, the risk of litigation from the state is too great, as it could negatively impact Flagstaff’s state-shared revenue. The state has already demonstrated that it takes no issue with targeting Flagstaff for progressive policies, as it did when it billed the city $840,000 for implementing a minimum wage increase . “I don’t want to take that risk,” Salas said.
“I don’t want to see this die tonight,” said Mayor Paul Deasy, who advocated for etching away at the roadblocks and making space for RCV in continued conversation. “I still support this going to a charter committee.”
Deasy also gave direction to include RCV in future Arizona legislative priorities, so that Flagstaff lobbying efforts can apply pressure in the Legislature.