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Time to stop moving the goalposts on recall elections

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Time to stop moving the goalposts on recall elections

SB 1449 would require partisan primaries during recalls

  • Former Senate President Russell Pearce, who was recalled last year, on a 2010 photo.
    Maria Polletta/Cronkite News ServiceFormer Senate President Russell Pearce, who was recalled last year, on a 2010 photo.

If you can’t beat ‘em, change the election laws. This old political saw appears to be the sentiment among conservative lawmakers still smarting over Sen. Russell Pearce’s defeat in a recall election last year.

If that’s the case, then SB 1449 is just the ticket. The recall election bill would replace the current winner-take-all system with one requiring partisan primaries. The measure passed the Senate by a 17-11 vote largely along partisan lines with Democrats in opposition. It now goes to the House for further action.

As currently written, SB 1449 reads, in part:

"If the [recalled incumbent] is regularly subject to a partisan primary election, the recall primary election shall also be held as a partisan primary election. If there is only one candidate remaining for the office that is subject to the recall after the recall primary election, the recall general election shall not be held and the winner of the recall primary election shall be declared elected.”

Supporters say the proposed law is fairer because it allows incumbents to contest a recall election using the same system that elected them to office, according to The Arizona Capitol Times. Critics argue SB 1449 will make it harder to oust lawmakers on top of bending the outcome toward more ideologically rigid candidates.

Most Arizona officeholders compete for legislative seats through a partisan primary that is followed by a general election. This system has favored incumbents historically. SB 1449 would essentially extend this political schema to recall elections.

And that is precisely the trouble, opponents of the measure say. A runoff open to all candidates and voters (the current system) would occur rarely, if at all, in future recall elections under the rules proposed by the bill. The new process would largely preclude bipartisan efforts by voters to recall an incumbent.

Moreover, partisan primaries pose a special problem for politically moderate candidates: They rarely win. Since turnout is dominated by a party’s more ideological base, the more extremist candidates are almost guaranteed to win. Once in office, they immediately dig in along their Republican or Democratic Maginot Lines at the Legislature. The result is a problematic body where compromise is the exception, not the rule.

In one sense, the Pearce recall election (in which the more moderate challenger won) is a clarion call by Arizonans for change. They want less partisan bickering and more problem-solving. A recent Morrison Institute/Merrill poll shows Arizonans in support of changing the primary structure so the two top vote getters for an office – regardless of party affiliation – advance to a general election to determine the winner.

“This could result in a state legislature that is more representative of all registered voters, rather than the ideological voters on the right and the left,” said Morrison Institute Senior Research Fellow Bruce Merrill, a pollster.

SB 1449 appears to be a good deal for incumbents and ideologues seeking office. For middle-of-the-road voters, or the majority, not so much. Perhaps it’s time for lawmakers to quit moving the goalposts and place Arizona’s larger interests over politics.

Morrison Institute for Public Policy is a leader in examining critical Arizona and regional issues, and is a catalyst for public dialogue. An Arizona State University resource, Morrison Institute uses nonpartisan research and communication outreach to help improve the state's quality of life.

Ed Perkins is a policy analyst at the Morrison Institute for Public Policy, an ASU think tank.

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