Arizona Proposal Could Dramatically Change Primaries

Voters will decide whether to create a new open-primary system that threatens the power of political parties.
by | October 29, 2012

Nov. 7, 2012 7:33 a.m. Update: With more than 99 percent of the precincts reporting, 67 percent of Arizonans rejected Prop. 121.

For full election coverage and analysis, go to Governing's 2012 Election Center.

Arizona could drastically change the way its voters choose elected officials by throwing away the traditional primary system in a move that threatens the power and influence of the state’s political parties.

On Election Day, Arizonans will decide the fate of Proposition 121, which would create a “top-two” primary system.

Instead of candidates being chose from traditional party primaries, all the candidates in a race – regardless of party affiliation, or lack thereof – would appear on a single ballot. The top-two vote getters would advance to a general election. Similar systems have been adopted in recent years in California and Washington.

Supporters say that the reform will allow elected officials to take positions that are in the best-interest of their districts, without fear of consequences from political parties that put them in office. They say it will also have a moderating impact on politicians by making the party bases less influential and instead bringing power to the broader electorate. As one author put it succinctly, top-two primaries have the potential to reduce the “jackass quotient” of an elected body.

In Arizona, the push for a top-two primary is being led by Paul Johnson, a former Phoenix mayor and unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate.  He says independents are the fastest growing cadre of voters in the state, yet they still have a diminished role in the political process since so many legislative districts have been gerrymandered so that they’re “safe” for one party or the other in the general election. Essentially, the real contest is in the primary, where candidates are accountable to their party base and not their constituents at-large.

“At the end of the day, elected officials are generally a reflection of the people who vote for them,” Johnson says. “If you create an incentive system for them to be re-elected that says ‘you’ll never have to talk to Democrats or Republicans or Independents,' don’t be surprised when they’re more extreme.”

That creates a system where politicians advance policies that please the party faithful but don't reflect the wishes of the electorate as a whole. A perfect example of that, Johnson says, is the state’s controversial immigration law, which he considers an attempt to pander to a conservative base.

After the law passed, Russell Pearce, the Republican state senator who was its sponsor became the first legislator in state history to be removed from office when he lost a recall election. A Republican seen as more moderate took his job.

Johnson says just like the existing system promotes extremism, reform would have a moderating impact on politicians. He and other supporters of top-two primaries argue that with candidates accountable to the electorate at-large – not just their party base – they’ll have to take more reasonable, measured positions.

“Through no organized effort, somewhere near 40 percent of the public has left the two parties and registered as ‘other,’” Johnson says. “That’s a sign of a mass movement. They’re not happy. They don’t believe the existing two-party system is working.”

But critics of the plan -- including the governor -- have adamantly defended the status quo. Gov. Jan Brewer has called Johnson's proposal “an attack on our election process itself.”

Critics say the move would reduce voter choice, since in some cases, a general election could actually have two candidates from the same party.

They also warn that the candidates in the general election might not represent the views of a district. For example, a heavily conservative area could have many Republican candidates and just two Democrats in a primary. Hypothetically, those Republican candidates could split the vote, leading to a runoff consisting of just Democrats, even if Republicans in the aggregate had more votes.

The change would affect all federal, state, county and local elections – except for the president and vice president – starting in 2014. Politicians running in the open primaries could declare themselves as members of any political party – or no political party – in a move that also threatens traditional power bases.

Critics of the plan say that aspect is especially troubling, since it would become difficult to know who’s truly a Republican or Democrat. They also suggest that the reforms attempt to solve a problem that doesn't exist, since independents can vote in party primaries.

Tim Sifert, a spokesman for the state Republican party, says that if the system is implemented, it's unclear how the parties would respond. Sifert says Republicans could create a closed caucus to select the candidate it will back, but that would be less transparent than the primaries, and it's a situation the party wants to avoid.


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