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Over the last several decades, party central committees, partisan special interests, and courts overseen by party-appointed judges have built an institutional wall around party power-brokers. Districts are re-drawn, with bipartisan agreements: “I’ll give you a red district X if you give me a blue district Y. Then we can focus our resources and battle it out for District Z.” The rules for ballot access, different in each state, have been similarly framed around a two-party picture: signature requirements and ballot rights are usually conditioned on a party’s historical success in prior elections. For Democrats and Republicans, this means nothing; ballot access is a given.
For Greens, Libertarians, Peace and Freedom, and everyone else, this means that marginal resources are spent to just get on the ballot instead of communicating with potential voters. If you are an independent candidate, well good luck. It’s almost impossible to get on the ballot unless you’re a billionaire or a magician. Consequentially, the political “game” occurs between the red team and the blue team.
The little known and lesser-discussed reality is that the “real” elections occur during primaries. This is because the candidates who make the general election ballot are determined during the primary, when far fewer people vote. And because most districts are pre-painted Red or Blue, the winner of the majority color’s primary wins the seat. The general election is, in reality, just a show.
Arizona’s Proposition 121 is so revolutionary because it hits the red and blue partisan structure at its core. Under the proposed system, party controlled primaries, where the purpose is for partisan voters to select a leader that best represents them, would be replaced with a non-partisan system, where all candidates and all voters participate in a single primary and the purpose is to select the top-two candidates that represent all of us. The system is modeled after Washington State’s non-partisan system, a system also adopted by California in 2010 and executed for the first time this year.
Opponents of the top-two open primary ironically argue that third party and independent candidates will not have a voice under the new system. In California’s history, no independent or third party candidate has ever won statewide office. But for the first time, five Peace and Freedom candidates are in one-on-one races. Also for the first time, two independent candidates have a shot at making history.
Further, California has gone from having the least competitive to the most competitive elections in the country, according to Ballotpedia. And five bitter-partisan incumbents who have collectively held office for more than 100 years are facing serious challenge for the first time.
Does the new system mean that third party and independents are less likely to be on the general election ballot because they have to first get passed the primary? Yes. But does it mean that the playing field is level at its foundation, so credible non-party backed candidates, regardless of party affiliation, can actually win? Yes. Does it mean that some voters sometimes won’t have anyone from “their team” on the ballot? Yes again.
But, it also means that a relatively unknown Democrat like Eric Swalwell can take on a long-time bitter partisan incumbent Democrat like Peter Stark, and actually win. It means that the voters in this blue district, whose vote for their own party candidate has never really mattered, become the deciding factor in this year’s election.
It means that we start to see that there are different shades beneath the solid paint that covers our political maps. It means that the person who is elected to represent us has to appeal to more than just the partisan base that turned out for one color’s primary.
Arizona’s Proposition 121 matters to all of us because there is a silent revolution brewing out West. In a region known for its solid colors, those who see the many shades of our political spectrum are cracking the foundation of institutionalized partisanship.
And if Arizona’s Proposition 121 passes in the face of the millions of dollars being poured into Arizona by the institutionalized special interests to paint the proposition as a special interest ploy, the revolution might not be so silent in 2014.