The “hybrid” process that Sparks uses to elect City Council members has been declared unconstitutional by a federal appeals court in a case involving Tucson, Arizona.
Sparks City Attorney Chet Adams said the case highlights the need for Sparks to change the way it elects council members to comply with the constitutional requirement imposed by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the Tucson case.
The City Council will have to decide whether to pursue the change.
The court ruling provides for two options: Getting rid of council wards and having candidates run citywide or at-large or using ward-only contests in the general and primary elections.
“Certainly as an elected official with the city of Sparks and one whose obligation is to ensure that our processes and procedures meet constitutional muster, I have always been of the opinion that we need to be proactive in this,” Adams said. “If the rights of Sparks voters are not being adequately protected…then we need to do something in order to fix that.”
In a 2-1 decision, the federal appeals court, which has jurisdiction over Nevada and five other western states, struck down Tucson’s “hybrid” elections in which City Council candidates run in separate city wards in the primary election and then citywide in the general election—the same process that the city of Sparks uses.
This system gives votes from residents in a ward more importance, violating the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution, the appeals court decided.
“The practical effect of the Tucson system is to give some of a representative’s constituents—those in his home ward—a vote of disproportionate weight,” according to the court’s majority opinion.
“That is the very result the Supreme Court’s one person, one vote jurisprudence is meant to foreclose. Every otherwise eligible voter who will be a constituent of the winner of the general election must have an equal opportunity to participate in each election cycle through which that candidate is selected.”
The city of Sparks is divided into five wards, each having about the same number of residents and each having one representative on the City Council. Council members are elected to four-year terms, with the elections staggered every two years so that the terms do not end at the same time. Only voters residing within a ward can participate in the city’s primary election in June when that ward’s council seat is on the ballot, while the general election in November for the seat is conducted citywide.
The city’s election procedures are part of the City Charter, and changes to the charter must be approved by the state Legislature, which doesn’t meet in regular session until 2017. A special session of the Legislature would have to be called by the governor to make changes before Sparks’ city elections in 2016.
Adams said the council has another option to change the procedures in time for next year’s elections if the Legislature doesn’t intervene, and that option provides for at-large elections.
Under his interpretation of the charter, the council could strike the charter’s provisions dealing with elections on the basis that the hybrid system has been declared unconstitutional. The council could then invoke another provision in the charter that allows the city to employ state law for its elections. The applicable state law cited by the city attorney provides for an at-large primary election.