Elections by Ward Only

Greg Patterson at Espresso Pundit has a pretty good assessment of a long-standing problem that Tucson has had with its city government elections. Both Greg and I would know since we both are derived from Tucson and have seen first-hand the problem in action.

Greg’s post addresses the issue of a legislative solution to Tucson’s partisan-style election system. But I want to add another point to his post that is often overlooked. And I would know having been intimately familiar with the problem in the early 90’s.

Presently, the City of Tucson holds a primary election for its mayor and councilmen. Both parties usually put up good candidates. City council candidates go through the primary at the ward level. Mayoral candidates go through the primary city-wide.

The problem comes into play during the general election. All primary candidate winners (mayoral and councilmen) move on to the general election but instead of the voters in each ward electing their own councilman, the rest of the city gets to vote in the ward elections. (Tucson City Charter, Chapter XVI, Section 9) This means that the voters of one ward may overwhelmingly elect a councilman who is rejected by all the other wards voting. The best example would be akin to having Arizona nominating its two US Senate candidates only to have the rest of the states gang up and vote for the candidate who would have received the lesser votes by Arizona voters.

Sec. 9. Mayor nominated and elected at large; councilmen nominated from wards, elected at large.
Beginning in the year 1930, and continuing thereafter, the mayor shall be nominated from and elected by the voters of the city at large, and the councilmen shall be nominated each from, and by the respective voters of, the ward in which he resides, and shall be elected by the voters of the city at large.

It’s completely unfair to the voters of each ward.

My understanding of the system goes back to Tucson’s City Charter. If I recall correctly, the election provision dates back to 1930 when the population of Tucson was sparse and there were barely any voters to participate in an election. I assume the then city council wrote the charter in a way to bring as many voters into the process regardless of where they lived and how many wards there were.

Fast forward to the last decade on the 20th century and Tucson has grown exponentially. There are clearly more voters and more unique areas of Tucson that deserve to elect individuals who are invested in their community.

In the early 90’s I was part of a committee to change Tucson’s city charter so that voters could vote for their primary candidate winners not just in the primary but in the general election as well. That effort failed primarily because there was limited interest to move it forward. And this was during a time where East Tucson, which is primarily Republican, would put up a great conservative candidate only to have the other wards reject that candidate in favor of some liberal wacko.

I now live in Mesa, the third largest city in Arizona (behind Tucson) where the voters do get to elect their councilmen by ward in the primary and general – although it is a non-partisan election.

So my recommendation to Senate-elect Jonathan Paton would be to not only make city elections non-partisan but to require cities above specific sizes to elect their councilmen by ward only in the general election.

Update: Sonoran Alliance contacted Senator-elect Jonathan Paton regarding his legislative efforts and discovered that the bill currently scheduled to be introduced will contain the Election by Ward provision.


  1. “In the early 90’s I was part of a committee to change Tucson’s city charter so that voters could vote for their primary candidate winners not just in the primary but in the general election as well. That effort failed primarily because there was limited interest to move it forward.”

    In other words, DSW, you couldn’t muster enough political support, so it died.

    And in true Republican fashion, when it suits your partisan needs you’ll happily use your legislative majority to force something down the throats of Tucson that it doesn’t want.

    Let’s hope you don’t succeed.

  2. SonoranSam,

    Would you be OK letting NM, UT, CA, NY, etc. vote on who you nominate to Congress or the US Senate?

  3. I let CA, NY and TX elect my President, since they pick more members of the Electoral College. And when I lived in Tucson, I lived under Legislative rules that were written by people up in Phoenix.

    The fact remains. Republicans like to say the government that works best is the government that’s closest to the people – unless you’re the Legislature, and you don’t like something Tucson is doing.

  4. I am unsureabout the whether to have nonpartisan elections, but, am totally in favor of councilmembers being elected as well as nominated by the people of their wards.

    Oh, and I’m a resident of the City of Tucson who has worked in campaigns for city council.

  5. Scott in Tegucigalpa says

    This is the root of all of the Old Pueblo’s political evil. The double think and double speak that justifies this structure of institutionalized taxation without representation is comical.

    Jonathan Paton is the first politician with the backbone, smarts, and clout to start taking down the mafioso system in Tucson.

  6. I really hope we end up getting non-partisan elections, and voting by ward in Tucson. Maybe we can actually get something done in this city. Go get ’em Paton!

  7. Veritas Vincit says

    In any economic analysis of a city’s future prospects, there are 3 basic questions asked:
    1) Are councilperson elected city-wide or by district or ward?
    2) Does the city have rent control?
    3) Does the city charge a utility users tax?

    One yes raises eyebrows while three indicates a very poor selection for a private economic investment.

    Tucson’s transportation grid and lously downtown area are monuments to having a ward election system.

    A shame too, the place has such potential in spite of itself.

  8. Veritas apparently is unfamiliar with elections for city council in Tucson.

    Currently the elections are citywide.

    A shame Veritas is so ignorant!

  9. I read the comments about the history of Tucson’s city elections and wanted to throw my 2 cents in. I go back to the days when the parties organized City Committees every odd year to battle for the city council. I was Ward 5 Captain in 1971, I think, and we were always told Tucson had the San Diego form of city government, weak mayor/strong city manager with the election in the primary by ward and the general, city wide and partisan. I believe San Diego is still the same and partisan. Pete Wilson started his career as the Republican Mayor of San Diego.

    While Sen-elect Paton is at it, I think he should also dump the weak mayor system and make the mayor’s job more powerful than that of the bureaucrat, the city manager, and thus more responsive to the electorate. As a merit badge counselor for the Boy Scouts, I always tell them the mayor’s job is mainly cutting ribbons at grand openings and little else. That always seems to shock them, due to the press the mayor gets, but he has no actual power, since he cannot even vote except to break tie votes.

  10. Меня заинтересовал этот материал, не могли бы Вы поподробнее и с дополнениями раскрыть эту тему?

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