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Open Government Committee launches top-two open primary ballot initiative in Arizona

by Damon Eris, published

Earlier this month, the Arizona Open Government Committee officially launched its campaign to bring a top-two style open primary system to the Grand Canyon State by ballot initiative in next year’s elections.

On August 3rd, the group unveiled their proposed constitutional amendment, entitled “The Open Government Act,” that would do away with the state’s current semi-closed partisan primary elections and instead institute a top-two open primary system similar to that adopted by California voters last year.   Under the top-two open primary, all candidates for a given office – regardless of their party affiliation – run on the same primary ballot, and all registered voters – regardless of their party affiliation – are eligible to cast their vote for the candidate of their choice.  The two candidates who receive the most number of votes then proceed to the November general election, regardless of their respective party affiliations.  Thus, it is possible that voters may end up with a choice between two Democrats, two Republicans, one of each or any other possible combination on the November ballot.

The new system would be implemented for all partisan elections except those for President and Vice President of the United States.   The proposed amendment would guarantee that all qualified voters have an “unrestricted right” to vote for the candidate of their choice.  Under the current system, Republicans cannot vote for Democratic primary candidates and vice versa.

“No longer will primary elections exist in which Democrats are limited to just choosing among Democratic candidates and Republican voters cast ballots just for Republican candidates, while Independent voters are largely left out altogether,” stated former Republican State Senator Carolyn Allen.

Yet, Independents are not completely left out of the present system.  Though, while they may opt to vote in the Democratic or Republican primary, they cannot cast a primary vote for a Republican in one race and a Democrat in another.

Proponents also argue that the new system will open the political process.

“Currently, partisan candidates seeking the nominations of their party often simply address the issues of a narrow group of voters who vote in the primary election,” said Paul Johnson, a former Democratic mayor of Pheonix who has since registered as an Independent, and is spearheading the movement.  Under the new system, “candidates will be forced to address issues of importance to all of us – Independents, Democrats and Republicans alike,” he stated.

Johnson and Allen are among those spearheading the effort, as reported here at AZIVN last month.

Opponents of top-two style open primary systems object to the fact that it limits voter choice to just two candidates in the general election.  “In practice, it would eliminate minor party and independent candidates from the November ballot,” wrote ballot access expert Richard Winger in an op-ed for the Sacrameto Bee arguing against California’s top-two initiative.  Winger points out that this was indeed the case in Washington after the state instituted its own brand of top two in 2008.

“Washington, for the first time since it became a state in 1889, had no minor party or independent candidates in November for any statewide state race or for any congressional race,” he stated.

“I call them Choke Point primaries, because that is precisely what they are – they create a choke point so general election voters have less choices,” writes Solomon Kleinsmith at Stop Top Two, an organization founded in opposition to the California initiative.

The group notes that there are numerous reform alternatives to the top-two open primary system that would incentivize political participation and lead to more representative government in the United States.  It suggests, for example, proportional representation, instant runoff voting, approval voting, and multi-member legislative districts.

The Open Government Committee is set to begin collecting signatures to get its initiative on next year’s ballot later this month.  They must collect nearly 260,000 valid signatures by July 5th 2012.  For more information about the initiative, see the Open Government Committee's website.