The Sparks City Council has decided not to take action on changing the city’s “hybrid” system of electing council members, which has been declared unconstitutional by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a case involving Tucson, Arizona.
The city’s election process is characterized as a hybrid system because the primary election for City Council seats is conducted by wards, but in the general election council members are elected by an at-large or citywide vote.
Such a system, the federal appeals court ruled, violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution because it gives a disproportionate weight to voters in a ward.
The court, in a 2-1 decision, ruled that every voter who will be a constituent of the winner of the general election also must have an opportunity to vote in the primary election to satisfy the one-person, one-vote legal standard.
The ruling creates two choices to avoid the constitutional violation: ward-only elections in the primary and general elections or getting rid of wards and having citywide elections.
The city of Sparks is divided into five wards, each containing about the same number of residents and each one represented by a council member. The terms of the council members are staggered so that seats are not up for election at the same time.
The city’s election process is outlined in the City Charter, and changes to the charter must be approved by the state Legislature. The Legislature doesn’t meet in a regular session until 2017, which doesn’t allow for changes in time for this year’s City Council elections.
The City Charter, however, does allow the city to default to state law when a provision in the charter has been declared unconstitutional or invalid. And state law provides for at-large city elections.
The City Council, however, rejected that course of action, expressing no support for getting rid of wards. That means the issue could go to the Legislature in 2017 with a proposal to have ward-only elections.
The council’s lack of action places the city at risk of having its election process challenged in court in the wake of the federal court ruling. That ruling, however, could be overturned through further appeal.