Turnout boomed after Phoenix shifted local election schedule. What about March runoffs?

Taylor Seely
Arizona Republic

Hundreds of thousands more residents are voting in Phoenix City Council races since the city four years ago shifted its elections from August to November to line up with other, big statewide and national contests.

Long criticized for hosting off-year elections that garner low turnout, Phoenix now turns out a majority of voters to cast ballots in City Council races, according to 2020 and 2022 election figures. 

That might not have happened had a resident not mechanized an obscure citizen-petition rule to force the city to consider it. And despite the fact that both ardent city voters and those who mostly only turn out for midterms or presidential years tend to agree on consolidation, a number of Valley cities continue to host separate elections. 

But even after lining up local races with November elections, who sits on Phoenix City Council can still be decided by a small pool of people, and that's all but certain to happen this year. That's because candidates have to earn more than 50% of the vote to win outright. Otherwise, the top two vote-getters head to yet another election  — a runoff in March that regularly sees low turnout. 

Kevin Robinson and Sam Stone will face off to represent District 6, which includes Arcadia, the Biltmore area and parts of north central Phoenix. Incumbent Carlos Garcia will face Kesha Hodge Washington in District 8, which includes an area just east of downtown, south Phoenix and Laveen.

More:Runoffs in 2 tight Phoenix City Council races

Some say the current system is imperfect, but at least more voters are heard at the onset. Others argue a better way is available, a way that maximizes participation and saves taxpayers money. Ranked choice voting or instant runoff voting gained traction in the Valley in 2008 but was ultimately doomed by a handful of Glendale residents who rejected a ballot measure known as Proposition 404. Now, another group is working to revive it. 

Routinely low turnout before switch 

One out of five voters typically turned out for Phoenix City Council elections in the years before the schedule switch, meaning leaders were put in power by very few constituents.  

That tracks with national data from the National Civic League, which shows local election turnout ranges between 15% and 27% nationwide. The number one predictor of turnout is when the election is held. 

"It pained me to see (so few) people turning out for a mayor's race in the country's fifth largest city," said Councilman Jim Waring, District 2, of Phoenix's August 2015 election.

A voter waits in line on Election Day at the Pendergast Learning Center in Phoenix.

Greg Stanton, who's now a U.S. representative, won that race. News coverage reported he "cruised" to victory — and he did, technically, capturing 65% of the vote in a three-person race. But of 657,000 eligible voters in Phoenix, only 20% participated, meaning 13% of constituents put Stanton in power. 

Mayor Kate Gallego was elected with essentially the same share — 14% — during her March 2019 runoff against Daniel Valenzuela. 

Her share of eligible voters dramatically increased in 2020 though, after the city switched to November elections. She won over 41% of Phoenix's 850,000 eligible voters. 

About 75% of Phoenix voters participated that year. This year, about 65% participated, based on unofficial returns. Official turnout figures will be available after Maricopa County canvasses the results at the end of November.

One resident forced City Council to consider November elections 

Phoenix shifted to November elections after resident Marcus Huey petitioned the City Council in 2018 to consider consolidating its elections with statewide and federal races.

Phoenix and other cities had long resisted calls to do so, even battling the Legislature in court after it tried to force cities' hands in 2012. Waring, who has long supported election consolidation, said shifting to November makes campaigning more difficult for incumbents since they have to reach more voters.

But in a surprising change of events, after Huey's push, the Council put the choice to voters — a requirement since the change would amend Phoenix's charter, which is essentially the city's constitution. 

Voters overwhelmingly passed it on an August 2018 ballot, belying the theory that ardent local constituents wanted to keep the voter pool small to reinforce the strength of their vote.

Danny Mazza said it just made sense to him on multiple levels to consolidate elections.

As a college student, he drove from Tucson to Phoenix to cast a vote for Peggy Neely against Nick Corridino for City Council District 2 in 2001, he told The Republic.

But it would be easier and better for everyone if all the elections were at once, he said. Plus, he said, it would probably save money. 

Huey, who petitioned the council to make the change, figured he was lobbying against his own best interest as a Republican in a growing city that was trending liberal. But for him, it was about strengthening democracy so "the will of the people prevails."

Waring said it's also about increasing awareness, so voters meet their councilmembers.

Most Valley cities, however, continue to host their elections in August, with runoffs in November. Scottsdale shifted to November in 2008 and saw an increase in voter turnout from 15% to 85%. 

Peoria's elections are in August only if enough candidates register to make a November runoff possible. Otherwise, the city waives the primary and goes straight to the general election. 

If past is prologue, a small group will still elect council members 

After a majority of Phoenix voters cast a ballot in the November 2020 City Council races, most of them sat out of the runoff, which means a significant chunk of voters from the first round ultimately had no direct say in which candidate took office. 

Councilmembers Debra Stark and Yassamin Ansari, for example, were elected with thousands fewer votes in the runoff than either earned in November. Ansari won with about 7,500 votes in March despite winning almost 16,000 votes in the first round — and that was against four other candidates. 

Turnout in District 3, where Stark ran, declined 65% from November to March. In Ansari's District 7, it declined 77%. 

So while roughly 135,000 Phoenix voters who were eligible to cast a ballot in District 6 or District 8 races turned out in November 2022, it's likely that far fewer will determine who gets elected in March 2023.

Runoff elections don't have the draw that midterm and presidential elections do. But also, voters sometimes don't want to have to vote a second time — or don't realize they have to. 

South Phoenix resident Fatima Salinas said she typically only turns out for presidential elections, or when there's a ballot measure she cares about. She voted in the City Council race this November, but when asked about the last non-November election she voted in, she couldn't remember. 

Potential solution lost steam in 2008, and again in 2022 

Glendale considered changing its local elections to ranked choice voting in 2008 as a means to increase turnout and avoid runoffs. 

Sometimes also called instant runoff voting, ranked choice allows voters to select their preferred candidates in order. In other words, a voter gives their first, second and third choices. If a voter's top candidate doesn't earn enough votes to win, then the voter's second choice is counted and so on. 

Proponents say it saves taxpayers money by eliminating additional elections and ensures candidates are elected by a majority of voters. 

As of November 2022, at least 55 U.S. cities used ranked choice voting, according to data collected by the nonpartisan group FairVote, which advocates for ranked choice voting. 

Blake Sacha's been pushing to bring instant runoff voting to Arizona's statewide and local races since 2020. President of Voter Choice Arizona, Sacha said the group has reached out to nine Arizona cities, including Phoenix and Flagstaff.

The idea has been met with resistance, mostly because city officials think implementation would be difficult and potentially trigger litigation. 

It would be easier if it were implemented statewide, said Shawn Johnson, Flagstaff Mayor Paul Deasy's chief of staff. Right now, county election departments aren't set up to handle ranked choice voting. Cities also worry it could trigger complaints, Sacha said.

Glendale city leaders said the same thing back in 2008. A group called Better Ballot Glendale lobbied for ranked choice voting but voters — the 7,500 who participated in that election — rejected the measure.

Huey said the massive strides Phoenix has seen in turnout since shifting to November was exactly what he'd hoped for when he submitted his petition in 2018. He's not sure about ranked choice voting. He doesn't know much about it, he said. But at the end of the day, he said he wants more people participating. 

Reach reporter Taylor Seely at tseely@arizonarepublic.com or 480-476-6116. Follow her on Twitter @taylorseely95 or Instagram @taylor.azc.