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The nonpartisan primary: Is it a game changer?

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The nonpartisan primary: Is it a game changer?

Arizonans are accustomed to an election system where they vote in party primaries and choose among the winners of those primaries in general elections. Party primaries, however, have been low turnout affairs and the relatively few 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. Because of this, nominees tend to be far more ideological than those who generally identify with either of the major parties or the voters in the general electorate.

The end result, as far as the state Legislature is concerned, is to encourage both gridlock and extremism and to contribute to the failure of lawmakers to produce to the satisfaction of the majority of Arizonans.

Can the election system be reshaped to encourage greater moderation? There is no magic bullet but there is reason to believe that some progress could be made by replacing the current system with a nonpartisan blanket primary. In this arrangement, voters are given the opportunity to choose from all candidates for a particular office, regardless of the voter's party affiliation or the political affiliation of the candidates. Candidates are free to indicate their party preferences after their names. The choice of nominees, however, would no longer be made simply by the die-hard, ideologically minded true believers in each party.

The nonpartisan primary for state offices and elections to the U.S. Congress has been employed in Louisiana and, in recent years, in Washington and California. Under the version used in Louisiana since 1975 for state offices, if a candidate receives a majority of the vote in the primary, he or she is automatically elected to office – there is no need for a runoff or general election. If no candidate picks up more than half of the votes, a runoff election is held between the top two vote getters.

In the "top two" version of the nonpartisan blanket primary a general election contest is always held between the top two vote getters, even though the leading candidate may have received more than half of the votes in the primary. Washington has employed this variation since 2008. It is scheduled to go into general use in California for the first time in 2012.

What is considered a moderate candidate is likely to vary from state to state, being one thing in Louisiana (which has never been noted for its moderate politics) and another in Washington or California. The system is not designed to encourage the selection of a generic "moderate" but to influence the selection of the more moderate or less extreme candidates in any given contest. It should have this effect in both the primary and general election because it encourages candidates to appeal to a broad constituency, not simply to members of their own party who are most likely to vote.

This does not mean the most extreme candidates will always lose out in the primary. This depends in large part on the number of candidates who enter the primary and their ideological dispositions. For example, in a crowded primary where the vote is distributed among a number of similar sounding moderate candidates it is possible for a very conservative candidate with a narrow constituency to gather enough votes to win advancement to the general election.

In the general election, though, the most extreme candidate is likely to have difficulty reaching enough voters to secure election. The classic case in point was the ability of David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader, to come in second in the 1991 primary contest for governor of Louisiana. In this contest the primary vote was scattered among 12 candidates. Duke ran as Republican. He did this without the party's consent. In the general election the incumbent governor, Edwin Edwards, a Democrat easily defeated Duke 61% to 39%.

The Duke case also illustrates two possible difficulties with the primary system. One is the danger of candidates hiding their identities or misleading the voters by the party label they choose to use. Another is the possibility of "tactical voting" — voting for a candidate simply to make it easier for another candidate to win. Some observers of the Louisiana election speculated that some voters favoring Edmunds voted for Duke in the primary as a way of nominating the candidate Edmunds could most easily defeat in the runoff election. Tactical voting, however, is not confined to blanket primaries. Under the more conventional systems tactical voting can take place as members of one party decided to vote in the primary of the other – something that is easier in an open primary but can also be done simply by reregistering in a primary system closed to party members.

The top-two system theoretically works most effectively in promoting moderation in general elections in districts dominated by one political party. In these situations, the top two vote getters in the primary are likely to be members of the same political party. If the gap in support between these two is relatively narrow those who identify with other political parties or no party at all, will have the opportunity to cast the decisive votes in the general election.

These votes, it is assumed, would likely to go for the more moderate of the two candidates: If two Democrats are nominated, Republicans and independents would be expected to tilt the election in favor of the less liberal of the two; and if two Republicans are nominated, Democrats and independents would be expected to tilt the election in favor of the less conservative choice.

In Louisiana, top-two runoffs are relatively rare because the top vote getter often has little difficulty picking up fifty percent of the primary vote. This is particularly true of incumbents running for re-election. Overall, the system has not been regarded as having had much of an impact on party competition or voter participation. The moderating influence has not as yet been determined. In Washington there have been only a few general contests where the top two vote getters were members of the same party. In 2008, for example, only 8 of the 125 legislative races were of that nature. Observers, though, found that the most moderate candidates won these contests.

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.

2011 Arizona voter registration

  • Republican 1,142,045
  • Independent 1,030,500
  • Democratic 1,007,124
  • Libertarian 24,951
  • Green 5,105
  • Total registered 3,209,725
  • Note: As of April 1, 2011
  • Source: Arizona Secretary of State’s Office

Ballot choices by the numbers

Arizona has 30 legislative districts. Two members are elected to the House of Representatives and one member to the Senate. Here is how the general and primary election shaped up in 2010:

  • 23 legislative seats were uncontested in the general election
  • 12 House seats were uncontested
  • 11 Senate seats were uncontested
  • 36 of 60 House primaries did not feature more than two party candidates for their party's two nominations
  • 7 primary races for the House had no candidates seeking their party's respective two nominations
  • 46 of 60 primaries for Senate were uncontested
  • 11 primary races for Senate had no candidate seeking their party's nomination
  • Note: Excludes votes for write-in and third-party candidates
  • Sources: Political 2011 Almanac, Arizona Capitol Times, Arizona Capitol Reports 2011

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