The Arizona Republic
May 9, 2012
Political moderates for years have bemoaned Arizona’s partisan primary system.
Voter participation is typically light, they complain, giving outsize influence to diehard party activists who often are either more conservative or more liberal than most rank-and-file party members and independents. And Democratic or Republican voters in districts dominated by the other party frequently have little or no choice once the general election arrives.
Many centrists blame the status quo for the state’s increasingly divisive political climate.
This year, Arizona voters may get the opportunity to overhaul the process. An initiative drive aims to place on the statewide ballot a proposition that would establish a new kind of open primary in which the top two vote-getters would face off in the general election.
All voters, including independents, could participate in the new “top two” primary, meaning the candidates would have to appeal to an array of voters beyond their ideological base in order to succeed. It would apply to all elections in the state except for nonpartisan municipal elections and the state’s presidential-preference election.
“You’re no longer voting for a nominee of the Democratic Party or a nominee of the Republican Party, you’re winnowing down the number of candidates down to two,” said David Berman, a senior research fellow at Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy who has studied the issue.
“So, it’s not a partisan primary anymore. It’s a system by which you screen candidates down to the top two.”
The pros and cons of the “top two” primary idea, which is in use in Louisiana and Washington and will go into effect in California this year, will be debated today during a panel discussion organized by the O’Connor House. The organization, named after retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s former home, advocates for centrist and nonpartisan policy solutions and civil discourse.
The event is scheduled for 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the Burton Barr Public Library, 1221 N. Central Ave., Phoenix. The event is free, but seats must be reserved through oconnorhouse.org.
Panelists set to appear at the O’Connor House forum include:
Grady Gammage Jr., a longtime Valley land-use attorney who helped write the Arizona primary initiative.
Alan Maguire, an Arizona political consultant who opposes the proposal.
Steve Peace, who led California’s similar initiative campaign to passage.
Richard Winger, San Francisco-based publisher of Ballot Access News and a fierce critic of “top two” primaries.
Berman, of the Morrison Institute, said his research on “top two” primaries was somewhat constrained by the fact the system has been in operation for only two election cycles in Washington, although he said initial evidence is somewhat promising in terms of encouraging moderation.
His 2011 paper on the subject notes that Louisiana’s process, which, unlike Arizona’s proposal, allows top vote-getters to win outright in the primary if they garner more than 50 percent of the vote, “has not been regarded as having had much of an impact on party competition or voter participation,” and its influence on moderation is unclear.
“There isn’t a lot of history to find out exactly what’s going to happen, but my impression is that there is a slight effect toward moderation just in the general tone because you have people who have to appeal to a broader electorate rather than just the party faithful,” Berman said.
If Arizona voters pass this year’s initiative, they will be trading traditional party primaries for a system similar to, but not exactly like, city elections. Candidates could still identify themselves on the ballot by their party or as an independent.
It’s possible, and in some Arizona congressional and legislative districts even probable, that the top two vote-getters in the primary would belong to the same party.
Unlike in city elections, the top vote-getter would not be able to avoid the runoff by clearing more than 50 percent of the vote in the primary. A general-election match-up is guaranteed.
In the case of Arizona House of Representatives elections, where two seats are up for grabs in each legislative district, the top four contenders would head to the general election.
More than just shaking up the election process, the 2012 initiative “is about trying to change the outcomes so that we end up with a more reasoned debate and more people are included in the process,” said former Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson, who is helping spearhead the proposed ballot measure.
Today’s partisan primaries require “ideological purity” and stoke hostility toward the other side, making bipartisan cooperation on major issues less likely, he said.
“Twenty years ago, it was normal for people to cross the aisle and work with other people and look for common ground. People felt like they had a responsibility to people in both parties,” said Johnson, who was the 1998 Democratic gubernatorial nominee but is now registered as an independent. “Today, politics is a team sport. It’s not about the state. It’s not about the country. It’s about: What team are you on, the blue team or the red team?”
However, Winger doubts the new system would have a substantial impact on the partisan rancor in the Arizona Legislature. The Democrats and the Republicans will concentrate on making sure their preferred candidates move forward, he said.
Winger also predicted it will be all but impossible for a third-party or independent candidate to break through and advance in a three-way primary race that includes two major-party candidates.
“We’ve seen how this system works in Louisiana for 38 years and in Washington state for four years,” Winger told The Arizona Republic. “It just ends up with Democrats and Republicans being the only people who can run in the general election.”
Berman didn’t dispute that but noted Libertarians and other third-party candidates don’t have much of a track record of attracting votes anyway.
“I don’t think it’ll hurt the major parties,” Berman said. “It’ll hurt the minor parties.”
Jaime Molera, a Republican consultant and a former Arizona superintendent of public instruction, said the “top two” primary initiative is another bad idea from the same sort of government reformers who brought the state publicly funded campaigns, an Independent Redistricting Commission and the existing semi-open primary system in which independents can choose either the Democratic or Republican ballot. So far, none of those “fixes” has done much to make Arizona politics more moderate, he said.
The real problem, Molera said, is low voter turnout, and “I’m not sure there’s any kind of a magic bullet that would fix that.”
“Ultimately, people have to decide for themselves if they want to participate in a democracy,” he said.
The Open Government Committee championing the “top-two” primary system has until July 5 to submit 259,213 valid petition signatures to secure a spot on the ballot for the initiative. If voters pass the measure, the “top two” primary would go into effect during the 2014 election cycle.