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New open government committee makes the case for non-partisan primaries in Arizona

by Damon Eris, published

A multi-partisan group of former elected officials is seeking to place a constitutional amendment on the 2012 ballot that would replace Arizona’s current semi-closed primary with a top-two open primary system similar to that which was passed by California voters last year.

The Open Government Committee, as the newly-formed organization is called, began to take shape earlier this year.  In anop-ed for The Arizona Republic in April, Paul Johnson argued that partisan politics is wrecking our country.

“Today, we have a two-party system built upon a simple principle: Win. Public policy comes second . . . Today, the two-party system rewards extremism and punishes moderation,” wrote the former mayor of Phoenix and Democratic nominee for governor in 1998.

Johnson is now one of over a million Arizonans who is registered as an Independent, refusing to affiliate with any political party.  He concluded the article with a call for nonpartisan primaries and invited like-minded individuals to join him in an effort to reform the primary process, writing:

“If you want to change the current system disproportionately dominated by the special interests of the two parties, we need help.  We will need a monumental effort to collect signatures, legal volunteers to defend against the parties who will not release power easily, and to help get our message out to voters.”

Since then, Johnson has been joined in his effort by a number of former lawmakers from both the Republican and Democratic parties.  Among them are former Republican party congressional candidate Paulina Morris, former GOP lawmakers Carolyn Allen and Bill Konopnicki, and former Democratic legislator Ted Downing, as reported by the AZ Capitol Times.  According to afiling with the Arizona Corporation Commission, the Open Government Committee was officially formed on June 21st with Paul Johnson, Paulina Morris and Karen Schroeder listed as directors.

The group sees a golden opportunity for reform in the growing number of voters in the state who refuse to affiliate with either of the major parties.  In 1990, Democrats and Republicans accounted for 89% of registered voters in Arizona.  Ten years, later 18% of Arizonans were registered with no party affiliation or with a third party.  By April of this year, 33% of the state’s 3.2 million registered voters opted not to affiliate with either major party, surpassing the registration numbers of the Democrats, who now account for just 31.3% of Arizona’s voters.  Based on this trend, many observers predict it is only a matter of time before Independents and third party supporters overtake the Republicans as well.  See the Secretary of State’s website for registration numbers going back all the way to 1924, when there were fewer than 100,000 registered voters in the whole state!

Supporters of the top-two primary system favored by the Open Government Committee argue that it will encourage voter participation among Independents, provide for more competitive elections, and potentially lead to the election of more moderate candidates for public office.  In recent years, voter turnout in primary elections has hovered around 24%. Assuming relatively equal turnout between the two major parties, that means as few as 6% of voters have been determining the choices for the general election ballot.

Contrary to a popular misconception, Independents are not prohibited from voting in Arizona’s primary elections, rather, they can only cast votes for one party’s candidates under the state’s semi-closed system.  However, it appears likely that Independents do not head to the polls because there are so few choices on the primary election ballot, when there is any choice at all.  A June report released by the Morrison Institute of Public Policy states that in 2010, “36 of 60 [State] House primaries did not feature more than two party candidates for their party’s two nominations,” while 46 of the 60 major party primary elections for State Senate were uncontested.

Opponents of the top-two system argue that though it may expand choice in the primary election, it reduces choice in the general election to just two candidates – who could very well be from the same party –, while potentially pushing third party and Independent candidates out of the political system altogether.  Ballot access expert Richard Winger states that, in practice, the blanket primary and top-two style system do not in fact result in the election of more moderate candidates in states where they have previously been implemented such as Louisiana and Washington.

“When someone tells you that we need a top-two open primary to get more moderate politicians in office, ask them for evidence,” wrote Winger in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Daily News.

The Morrison Institute report, which favors a nonpartisan primary, admits the lack of evidence in two footnotes stating that the system in Louisiana “had no significant impact when it came to the level of party competition or voter turnout,” and that though the experience with the system in Washington “suggests a moderating effect, more is still needed to be known about the broader questions involved.”

According to the AZ Capitol Times, to succeed in getting their proposed constitutional amendment onto the ballot in 2012, the Open Government Committee must collect nearly 260,000 signatures from registered voters by July 5, 2012.  One year out, the debate on the measure is already in full swing.