Only about a quarter of registered voters in Arizona participated in last week’s partisan primary elections and, with two months to go until the general, a third of the statehouse is already set.
The selection of lawmakers in the primary is one of the reasons Arizona policies tend to skew “extreme” on issues such as gun rights and immigration, and why things have to change, former Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson said. He’s leading a campaign to make Arizona the third state since 2008 to open primaries to all voters and candidates, and send the two with the most votes, regardless of party, to the general election.
“The people who are winning only have to appeal to a very narrow base,” Johnson, 53, said in a telephone interview, spitting out percentages of turnout and registration that he says are far too low. “There is no doubt the system has evolved into something our founders didn’t plan.”
The proposed change -- which would apply to all local, state and federal races except for president -- will be on the November ballot. It follows California, which tested its top-two primary system for the first time in June, and Washington state, where a similar process has been in place since 2008.
Many states, including Arizona, have sought to change the electoral process through measures ranging from public financing for campaigns and term limits for lawmakers, to overhauls of redistricting. The move to scrap partisan primaries, a more pronounced shift in how elections are conducted, comes as hundreds of statehouse races nationwide are uncontested and there is little or no competitiveness in many districts, including for the U.S. House of Representatives.
Arizona is certainly not alone in a lack of competition. In Massachusetts, which held its primaries yesterday, more than half of state lawmakers are unlikely to face an opponent in either the primary or the general election, said Brian McNiff, a spokesman for the Secretary of State.
Nationwide, about one-third of all statehouse seats are uncontested in the general election and even more go without primary challenges, said Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, a Takoma Park, Maryland-based nonprofit.
California’s new top-two primary -- supported by a coalition that included then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, and former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, a Democrat who was speaker of the Assembly for 15 years -- was passed by lawmakers in 2009 and approved by voters a year later.
The change is meant to encourage candidates to take a more moderate stance to appeal to a broader audience, instead of just the party base, since voters of any affiliation can support them in the primary election. In districts that skew toward a single party, as many do, two Republicans or two Democrats can end up facing off.
That’s the case for incumbent U.S. Representative Pete Stark, a California Democrat who has served in Congress since 1973. After the top-two primary in June, he is facing a challenge from another Democrat, Dublin City Councilmember Eric Swalwell, in a district that leans strongly Democratic.
“In a general election against a Republican, he would have coasted to victory,” Jack Pitney, a politics professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California, said in a telephone interview. “But in a top-two system, he’s facing a very tough challenge from a Democrat and he may very well be defeated.”
Pitney and others say it’s too soon to tell if California’s system will help ease partisan gridlock or result in more centrists in the statehouse or Congress.
“The benefit to the voter is that everybody gets to participate in the primary,” Pitney said. “We’ll see what the winners actually do in the Legislature and the Congress. Will they be more moderate, or will they vote the party line?”
Richie, whose group FairVote supports a shift to proportional instead of winner-take-all elections, said results in states with similar systems don’t indicate that top-two will improve competition in many races or drive voter turnout higher.
Vote-splitting can lead to representation that doesn’t reflect the majority of voters: In one Democratic-leaning congressional district in California with a large Latino population, two white Republicans will compete in the general election after the Democratic vote was split among four candidates in the primary, he said.
Another drawback is that the system can shut third parties out of the general election because it narrows the choice to two candidates -- often from the major parties, Pitney said.
“This system largely puts them out of business,” Pitney said.
Johnson in Arizona calls this concern a red herring. Third parties don’t win in general elections now, even if they’re on the ballot, and they would have a chance in the primary along with other candidates, he said.
Johnson, an independent who was a Democrat when he was mayor of Phoenix and ran for governor in the 1990s, said candidates of all parties would have to appeal to a broad segment of voters under the top-two system.
In Arizona today, Republicans dominate and the voices of moderates are “squashed out” in the primary, he said.
“You make sure you know how to capture the base -- which usually means the most extreme voter,” Johnson said. “Compromise is not a bad word to the general public, but it is a bad word to the voters who make up the extreme voters on both sides.”
Under Arizona law, independents can choose to cast ballots in either the Democratic or Republican primaries. About a third of the state’s registered voters are unaffiliated with a major political party.
Bill Montgomery, the Republican elected county attorney for Maricopa County who’s a spokesman for top-two opponents, said the system shouldn’t be changed to influence public policy. Election outcomes are up to voters, he said; if they don’t like who wins, they should vote.
“I’m sick and tired of hearing how great moderate candidates are,” Montgomery said. “Sometimes voters need candidates who take principled stands so that they have a choice.”
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