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Berman: Az voters may change way we elect candidates

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Berman: Az voters may change way we elect candidates

With registered independent voters in Arizona already outnumbering registered Democrats and soon to surpass the roster of registered Republicans, have political party primaries outlived their usefulness? And is it time for Arizona to begin electing local, statewide and federal officeholders in a nonpartisan manner to reflect the more moderate views of the general population?

Those related questions likely will be answered in the fall, with a proposal for open primaries and a top-two vote-getter system. A group headed by former Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson has until July 5 to gather 259,213 valid signatures to put the “Open Elections/Open Government Act” proposition on the Nov. 6 ballot. 

The proposed amendment to the state constitution would change Arizona’s electoral process to a top-two primary system patterned after those in Washington and California, and similar in some respects to those in Louisiana and Nebraska.

What would that mean for Arizona?

First let’s examine the election system we have: Presently Arizona has primary and general elections. Summertime primaries operate virtually exclusively within individual political parties – Democrats holding a Democratic primary closed to all other parties, and Republicans doing the same.

Legally, independents can choose to vote in either party’s primary, but not both. Realistically, independents usually vote in neither primary. They – like most Arizona voters – wait until the general election, which is open to all registered voters.

Therein lies the problem. Since party primaries traditionally have been low-turnout affairs, the few partisan voters who do show up tend to be from the opposite ends of the ideological scale – far to the right in Republican primaries and far to the left in Democratic primaries. Moderates from both parties often fail to survive the primary, so much so that few even try.

Instead, nominees tend to be more ideological than voters who generally identify with either of the major parties. And despite their surging numbers, independents are ignored altogether, with the favorable ballot status awarded to established parties making it extremely difficult for independents to even run for office.

Supporters of the top-two vote-getter proposal argue the election system should be reshaped to encourage a level of greater moderation, if not participation. Otherwise, the proposal’s proponents say, the current system’s end result – certainly as shown in the state Legislature – is somewhat predictable: Ideological extremism.

That could be why, the initiative’s backers say, lawmakers produce policies and budgets that conflict with the views of a majority of Arizonans. A recent Merrill/Morrison Institute Poll provides some examples:

  • Ninety-seven percent say a top-quality public school system is either crucial (70 percent) or very important (27 percent) to the state’s future. Yet 74 percent say the state Legislature fails to provide public schools with the necessary funding.
  • Nearly three-quarters of Arizona voters either strongly oppose (54 percent) or oppose (20 percent) allowing people to carry firearms into public places such as swimming pools, libraries and college camp.
  • 84 percent oppose allowing religious organizations that provide health insurance for their employees to ask female employees if they use birth control.

Let’s examine the top-two proposal: Gone would be political party primaries funded by taxpayers. Primaries would be open to all.

Voters would be given the opportunity in the primary to choose from all candidates for a particular office, regardless of the voter’s or candidates’ political affiliation. Candidates, however, could designate a party preference on the ballot, but they would not be required to do so.

The top-two vote getters in the primary – again, regardless of party – would face each other in the general election for an open office. (In the case of the state House of Representatives, where two members are elected from each of the 30 districts, the top four candidates to emerge in a primary would advance to the general election.)

The stated central objective of the top-two primary plan is to elect more “moderate” candidates, but not in the generic sense of the word. Rather it is to influence the selection of “less-extreme” candidates in both the primary and general election by encouraging candidates to appeal to a broader constituency, not simply to the extreme members of their own party who are most likely to vote in a primary under present practice.

Theoretically the plan works especially well in promoting moderation in districts dominated by members of the same political party. For example, if the gap between two candidates of the same political/party philosophy were relatively narrow, those who identify with other political parties or no party at all would have an opportunity to cast the decisive votes in the general election. These votes would likely go to the less-extreme candidate. 

If two Democrats were nominated, Republicans and independents would be expected to tilt the election in favor of the less liberal of the two. If two Republicans were nominated, Democrats and independents would be expected to tilt the election in favor of the less conservative of the two.

The result: An elected individual who better represents the entire constituency.

This does not, however, guarantee that the most-extreme candidates are destined to lose in the primary. This depends in large part on the number of candidates who enter the primary, as well as those candidates’ ideological dispositions. For example, in a crowded primary where the vote is distributed among a number of similarly positioned “moderates, it’s possible for a very conservative candidate with a narrow but efficacious constituency to gather enough votes to advance to the general election, setting up and extremist vs. moderate showdown.

Political parties also could encourage or discourage candidates to run as a way to control the ballot and push for their choose, still making it difficult for independents and third-party candidates to win.

Arizona, however, does appear to be a prime state for switching to a top-two system. Only a handful of our 30 legislative districts can be said to be competitive, and that equation won’t change significantly even after redistricting this year.  

While a top-two primary system is no magic bullet either, it may well encourage more moderate candidates to run and less-extreme candidates to get elected, resulting in a government more reflective of Arizona’s general voter sentiment.

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.

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