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Guest opinion

Few vote in primaries despite their impact

Many independents do not know they can participate

Only about one in five eligible voters cast ballots in Arizona primaries, despite the fact these races often serve as the decisive election for Congress and the Legislature. Independents, who often don't know they can participate in primaries, are dramatically unrepresented.

That's among the findings from Arizona Primary Elections: Primarily Forgotten, a new report by ASU Morrison Institute for Public Policy as part of a statewide voter education/engagement project by Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission.

"The more voters that participate in a primary the broader the representation of the public," said Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission Executive Director Tom Collins. "The Clean Elections Act and our partnership with Morrison are helping to call attention to these important issues of voter participation."

Due to districts that favor one major party or the other there is often little to no serious challenge in the general election, according to the report. The primary election essentially determines two-thirds of Arizona's nine congressional races and two-thirds of the state's 30 legislative races, the report states.

"The voter crisis in Arizona is really underscored by the lack of citizen participation in the primary elections, especially when considering the fact many key races are determined in the primary and the general election is relegated to more of a formality," said Morrison Institute's Joseph Garcia, who along with David Daugherty co-authored report.

Compounding the void is that voter turnout is significantly lower in primary elections than in general elections. Moreover, although independents have been able to vote Arizona primaries since the turn of the century, few participate in primaries.

In the 2016 primary election, less than 1 million of Arizona's 4.7 million potential voters (eligible voters of both the registered and non-registered variety) cast a ballot, noted the report, a follow-up publication to the Arizona's Voter Crisis report released last month.

The Arizona's Voter Crisis report found a lackluster voter turnout in the general election, as well. While 2.6 million votes were cast in the 2016 Arizona general election, there also were 2.1 million "potential voters" who did not exercise their fundamental right at the polls.

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"It almost can be said that voters don't determine elections, non-voters do," Garcia said.

Clean Elections and Morrison Institute have launched a proactive campaign to address the voter crisis on many fronts, including three reports:

Arizona's Voter Crisis, which examines voting participation and lack thereof over the years, as well as delves into reasons many non-voters cite as reasons for their non-participation.

Arizona Primary Elections: Primarily Forgotten, a look at often-ignored primary elections in terms of elections being decided de facto before the general election.

And the upcoming Arizona Voter Engagement, which will list various groups' efforts to get more people to become engaged politically and vote, along with contact information for greater involvement.

The reports are available at AZCleanElections.gov and MorrisonInstitute.asu.edu.

Arizona Citizens Clean Elections and Morrison Institute also are jointly holding three town hall-style meetings around the state to examine and discuss regional challenges and solutions in improving voter turnout. Local elected officials, voters and "potential voters" will be invited to participate in this effort.

As part of the statewide voter education project, Morrison Institute also provided Arizona Citizens Clean Elections with digestible and easy-to-read information regarding responsibilities and qualifications of each elected office. The information is presented on three levels: basic, mid and advanced. Morrison Institute produced descriptions are also featured the Commission's Voter Education Guide and online at www.azcleanelections.gov/en/how-government-works.

Such neutral, nonpartisan information will help frequent, infrequent and "potential" voters make the connection between how government works and why it's important to help shape that government, and at the same time perhaps offer frequent voters additional knowledge.

"After all, it's important not only that more people vote but also that more people know for what and for whom they're voting," said Morrison Institute Director Andrea Whitsett.

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The primary election will be held Aug. 28. The general election will be Nov. 6.

The director of communications for the Morrison Institute of Public Policy at ASU, Garcia is a longtime, award-winning journalist whose experience as a top editor, columnist and reporter included positions at The Arizona Republic, The Daily Times, Tucson Citizen, USA Today and The Associated Press.

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