Prop 121 would create open primary elections
PHOENIX — Former Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson says it's no surprise that the only segment of political registration that's growing is among independents.
At the general election two years ago, there were slightly more than a million Democrats. The most recent figures put that at about 936,000. Republicans fared little better, shedding more than 18,000 adherents to drop their registration to 1.1 million.
But independent registration skyrocketed from about 982,000 to more than a million in the same time.
“What we've seen from scientific polling is they're giving up on the system,'' said Johnson, a former Democrat who now also is an independent. “They think that the political parties today are more concerned with keeping a majority or getting a majority than they are with really dealing with substantive issues.''
All that, said Johnson, is why voters now need to take the next step: Approve Proposition 121 to scrap the current system of partisan primaries.
In its place, the measure would create a wide-open primary for each legislative, county, statewide and congressional office, featuring all candidates of all political persuasions. The same change would take place in Tucson, the only city to have partisan local elections.
The top two vote-getters would advance to the general election, regardless of party affiliation. Johnson believes that will force all the candidates to appeal to all the voters to get nominated, not just those of each candidate's party.
But that possibility is its greatest weakness according to foes.
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said it can end up with results that really do not reflect the will of the voters or give them a real choice.
The poster child event for foes was the open primary earlier this year in a Southern California congressional district that had two Republicans and four Democrats.
What happened is the two Republicans appealed to fellow party members, splitting the GOP vote. But that still left each of them with more votes than any of the Democrats who had divided up the Democratic vote.
So voters in that swing district will have a choice between a Republican and a Republican.
Montgomery said the problem will exist in Arizona because Proposition 121 would not create a real nonpartisan system. Instead, each candidate could self-declare political leanings, using whatever description available with 20 characters.
Johnson, however, said this Republican-vs.-Republican race still will be preferable to what occurs now.
In at least two-thirds of the legislative districts, one party or the other has such a strong voter registration edge that the primary effectively becomes the general election. That, he said, pretty much makes November opposition from the minority party in that district irrelevant.
But Johnson said the open primary that resulted in two Republicans will mean some real competition in November. “One of them will get smart and figure out how to appeal to Democrats. And that's the one that will win.''
Johnson said whoever does win will have to work with Democrats to ensure support in the next election. “That is the desired effect.”
The measure has picked up the opposition of the League of Women Voters.
Barbara Klein, the organization's Arizona president, said she agrees with Johnson that the current system leaves independents at a great disadvantage, something that might be aided by an open primary that puts all candidates on an equal footing. But she said Proposition 121 won't help independents and minor party candidates “unless they're very wealthy or extremely well connected.''
Potentially more significant, Klein believes that such a radical change will actually reduce the ability of these minority voices to get heard.
Klein said while the league does not take a position on the relative merits of political parties, it does recognize they have a purpose: They represent the values of a particular group of voters. She said those voices will get lost in a wide-open primary.
“When November rolls around and normal people start to pay attention to the ballot, they're going to find out they have a lot less choice. And in some cases, they're going to have no choice at all.''
By contrast, the current system pretty much ensures that at least the Libertarians and Green Party representatives will be on the general election ballot and, more important, will get to participate in those general election debates. Similarly, those who collect enough signatures to run as independents gain equal status.
Under Proposition 121, “their platform isn't going to be heard when it matters,'' said Klein.
Johnson acknowledged that party labels come with “strong brand recognition'' that can be helpful. But he does not see the initiative harming those beyond the two major parties.
“Independents, Libertarians and Green Party candidates aren't really winning much anyway,'' Johnson said of the current system. And he said if the goal of those parties is not to win races but instead promote a point of view, they can do that in the primaries.
Johnson said, though, the initiative could do wonders, at least for independents.
He pointed out that under the current law, a Democrat can qualify to run for a statewide office with just 4,765 signatures on petitions. Republicans need 5,671.
But an independent needs 31,111 names, a difference based, at least in part, on the ability to qualify for the general election without the screening of a primary. Proposition 121, with a single primary, would have a single signature requirement for everyone.
Similarly, the initiative would end the built-in advantage that political parties have because they get free voter registration lists that they can share with their candidates. “Everybody else has to pay for it,'' said Johnson.
And independents who want to run with public financing do not get as much as partisan candidates.
“The system today, it's rigged,'' Johnson said. “Sooner or later, whether it's through my effort or another effort, that's going to change.''
Johnson said the whole idea of open primaries should not scare Arizona voters. He said that's the system already in place in virtually all Arizona cities.
Montgomery, however, said what works at a local level does not work for other offices. “You're talking about how many parks do you want to have open for how long, do you want more police and fire. They're really issues that do not readily fall into partisan divides.''
Montgomery conceded that the activities of his office — prosecuting those accused of crimes — probably also does not have a political component, even though he runs under current law as a Republican.
But Montgomery said there is a “different philosophical understanding'' about the cause of crime between the major parties. “Are they a consequence of social factors or are they a consequence of individual decision making?''