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Will Open Primaries Shake Up Politics in Arizona?

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When Americans are unhappy in an election year, they often adopt a 'throw-the-bums-out' attitude toward incumbent politicians. In 2008, the Democrats seized control of all three branches of government. In 2010, Americans threw dozens of Democratic 'bums' out, and many Tea Party-leaning Republicans went to Congress for the first time. In 2012, Congress' nearly complete gridlock and 9 percent approval rating hint at another throw-the-bums-out year.

But does this cycle of alternatively sweeping Democrats or Republicans out of office really accomplish anything? Are voters getting what they want from government or just crossing their fingers and venting their anger at the ballot box?

Under our current electoral system, political parties have a greater voice in government than voters, and that has contributed to "partisan sniping and gridlock," according to Open Elections/Open Government (OE/OG), a bipartisan group of Arizonans who are working to place an open primaries initiative on the November 2012 ballot.

Disaffected voters believe elected officials are beholden not to them but to political party bosses and lobbyists, and this belief leads voters to lose faith in government, the OE/OG website claims.

Open primaries -- where all candidates regardless of party affiliation are listed on one ballot -- would give voters, rather than political parties, a greater voice in government, says Ted Downing, Ph.D., research professor of social development in the Arizona Research Laboratories at the University of Arizona and one of the initiative's architects.

"Taxpayers pay for elections [party primaries] that limit their choices," says Downing. Independents -- a rapidly growing group of registered voters in Arizona -- are "grossly discriminated against" under our current system, which favors the two major parties.

Voter registration in Arizona is roughly split in thirds between Republicans, Independents, and Democrats, with Republicans holding a slight edge over Independents and Democrats trailing in third place. In 2012, registered Independents are expected to overtake Republicans as the largest group of registered voters, according to Downing. The continued growth of the Independent vote and declining registrations for both major parties should be a big wake-up call that voters are unhappy with the current two-part-dominated system, Downing says.

Even though there are tens of thousands of registered Independents in Arizona, no Independent candidate has ever won a legislative or statewide office in Arizona. The electoral deck is stacked against them, according to Downing, who ran for the state legislature as an Independent in 2010. Arizona election laws require Independent candidates to collect five or six times as many signatures as Republicans or Democrats to have their names placed on the ballot, Downing adds.

Tucson, with its all-mailed primary and general election ballots, puts an additional burden on Independent voters. All ballots for registered Democrats and Republicans are mailed to them automatically, but Independents are required to contact the Pima County Recorder's Office and request either a Democratic or Republican primary ballot. If you are a true Independent and would like to vote for people of different parties, you can't do so in the local primaries. (Some states don't allow Independents to vote in primaries at all.)

This is hardly a level playing field.

"The rules were put in place by parties to protect their own interests," says Downing, who expects both the Democratic and the Republican Parties to fight against this initiative, as they did in other states that have adopted open primaries.

In addition to putting all names on the same primary ballot, the open primaries initiative eliminates all laws that favor a particular political party over other parties; requires all candidates for the same office to obtain the same number of signatures (regardless of party); allows any registered Arizona voter to sign nominating petitions, as long as they live in the designated geographic area; allows candidates to add "registered as...[Democrat, Republican, Independent, Green, Libertarian, whatever, or nothing]" after their names on the ballot; and calls for rotating candidates' names on the ballot.

Following an open primary, the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, would face each other in the general election. Yes, any combination of candidates could make up the top two -- even two candidates from the same party.

Open primaries and top-two general elections have interesting implications for incumbents. Under our current two-party-controlled system, political parties rarely run anyone against an incumbent because their focus is keeping that office as a D or an R.

Sometimes parties overtly discourage challenges to sitting incumbents; a classic case in point is the 2011 Tucson City Council race in which the Pima County Democratic Party endorsed all of the incumbent council members six months before the primary and bankrolled a publicity campaign and billboards attacking a Democrat who challenged the Democratic Party incumbent. Under the open primary/top-two system, a particularly unpopular incumbent could get bumped out of the race in the primary or could face someone from his or her own party in the general election.

The implications are monumental; "deep level reform" is how Downing characterizes the proposed system. Voters in two western states -- Washington and California -- have approved the open primary/top-two system.

"If Arizona joins them, we [the Western states] have a chance to change the national dialogue," says Downing.

He offers the Tea Party takeover of Congress as a case in point. In 2010, approximately a hundred Tea-Party-leaning Republicans were elected to the US House of Representatives. Even though they are not a voting majority, they have been able to drive the debate in Congress since they were elected.

In the 2016 elections, if California, Washington and Arizona all use the open primary/top-two system to elect their Congressional representatives, a hundred representatives will be forced to represent all voters in their district -- not just those in their party. Downing's eyes sparkled as he spoke of a Western Alliance of non-partisan representatives and the potential for less partisan bickering and increased cooperation in Congress.

Downing, former Phoenix Mayor " Paul Johnson, and others have been collaborating on the Open Elections/Open Government initiative for months. If passed, it would amend the Arizona Constitution and create an open primary system, which would apply to all elections in Arizona except the US Presidential election.

The Open Elections/Open Government initiative needs 259,213 signatures by July 5, 2012 to get on the November 2012 ballot. More information is at their website, http://azopengov.org/.