Paperwork filed to create open primaries in Arizona

Posted 9/19/23

PHOENIX — Arizonans may get the chance to scrap the historic system by which nominees for public office are chosen, a move that, if successful, could reshape the state Legislature and congressional delegation.

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Paperwork filed to create open primaries in Arizona


PHOENIX — Arizonans may get the chance to scrap the historic system by which nominees for public office are chosen, a move that, if successful, could reshape the state Legislature and congressional delegation.

Paperwork filed Monday with the Secretary of State’s Office would ask voters to create an open primary for all elections. That covers everyone from members of Congress and statewide elected officials to legislators, supervisors and, in the case of Tucson, its partisan city elections.

At the bare minimum, that would mean all candidates from all parties — and those with no partisan affiliation — would vie in the primary.

More to the point, every registered voter would get a chance to vote. Now, primaries essentially are party affairs, limited to those who are registered with that party.

Independents, the largest bloc of Arizona voters, can participate in a partisan primary. But there are hurdles, including a need ahead of time to choose which party’s ballot they want.

Sarah Smallhouse who chairs the Make Elections Fair Committee that is sponsoring the ballot proposal, said the current system — with taxpayers paying for the cost of running partisan primaries — is unfair because it “discriminates” against that plurality of independent voters.

But the real net effect of the measure would be to create a system where nominees would be chosen regardless of their political affiliation.

Political consultant Chuck Coughlin said this is crucial given that probably 25 of the state’s legislative districts are dominated by one party or the other. What that has meant, he said, is that whoever wins the partisan primary is a shoo-in when the November general election comes around.

Ditto, he said, of the majority of the state’s nine congressional districts.

Under this system, up to the top five vote-getters in the open primary would advance to the general election. And the presumption is that, with all registered voters choosing the nominees, those that survive would not be on the fringes of either party.

What happens after the proposed open primary, however, is not actually part of the initiative but would be left to the governor and lawmakers.

They could decide to allow only the top two vote-getters in the primary to fight it out in the general election.

The initiative, though, would preclude that decision being made on a partisan basis. So while it could be a Democrat and a Republican, the general election could just as easily be between two Democrats, two Republicans, two Libertarians, two unaffiliated voters — or any combination thereof.

But the measure also permits the governor and lawmakers to allow up to the top five vote-getters to advance to the general election. And at that point, they would be required to set up a system of ranked-choice voting, where those casting a ballot would rate their candidates based on their first, second, third and fourth preference.

That means if no person gets at least 50% in the first round of counting, then the candidate who got the fewest votes is eliminated. Then the votes of anyone for whom that person was the first choice are reallocated to that voter’s second choice.

And it goes round and around until someone has 50%.

Coughlin, a political consultant and treasurer of the campaign, however, said the focus is really on the radical change in the primary of giving all registered voters a chance to weigh in on who they want elected — and not have whoever wins a partisan primary in a heavily partisan district simply installed without having any opposition.

Now, in a district dominated by Republicans, candidates need to appeal only to GOP registrants — and specifically by those who tend to turn out in partisan primaries. Then, with that registration edge, the winners of those primaries becomes all but unbeatable in the general election.

The same is true in Democrat-dominated districts.

That happens now to the point that the minority party in some districts doesn’t even bother to field a candidate, as what occurred when Republicans Debbie Lesko and Paul Gosar won a new two-year term in the U.S. House of Representatives without Democratic foes.

It’s not just a congressional problem: Out of 30 state Senate races, Republicans didn’t contest the reelection of four Democratic incumbents last year and Democrats gave four Republicans a free ride in the general election.

The effort could prove to be an uphill fight — and not only because there is likely to be opposition from Republicans who have benefited from the current system and maintained unbroken control of the Arizona House for six decades and for the state Senate for most of that time.

First, backers need at least 383,923 valid signatures on petitions by July 3 to even get the measure on the 2024 ballot. Coughlin said that, given the normal margin of error and bad signatures, that means finding 500,000 registered voters willing to give the idea a chance.

Just gathering the signatures, he figured, will cost “upwards of $6.5 million.” And that figure doesn’t account for actually running a campaign.

Coughlin said he has actual cash in hand and commitments of $4.5 million. He would not disclose who will finance it, saying that will become public when the required campaign finance reports are filed.

He previously told Capitol Media Services a large chunk of the funds are coming from two board members: Smallhouse and Don Budinger.

Smallhouse, a Tucson native, is president of the Thomas R. Brown Foundations, named after her father who was a founder of the now-defunct Burr-Brown Corp. It is involved in providing grants for research, education, workforce development and civic leadership

Budinger is chairman and founding director of the Rodel Foundation, which also has been involved in awarding grants.