Will alternative parties and a change in voting methods deepen democratic representation or just favor one of the two established parties?
In a swing state that’s likely to decide the next presidential election, two new third parties want to get on the ballot and other groups want to remake the way votes are cast and counted.
Arizona, which voted for President Joe Biden in 2020 as the state has grown more purple, could see big shifts to its political establishment in the next year, all premised on the idea that the dominance of the two main political parties creates dysfunction and prevents progress on issues that matter to voters. That has Democrats and Republicans here worried.
One new party, No Labels, gathered enough signatures to put candidates on the ballot in 2024. Another new party, Forward, is starting to gather signatures to get ballot status.
Separately, a coalition of voting groups has surveyed voters to understand their thoughts on ranked-choice voting and open primaries in an effort to run a 2024 ballot measure that would greenlight the concepts in Arizona.
While similar efforts are afoot in other states and nationwide, Arizona provides a fertile place to experiment with attempts to reimagine elections.
About one-third of Arizona voters aren’t registered with a political party. Both major parties try to court these independent voters to build winning coalitions. In recent years, Democrats have been more successful at amassing independent support, though Republicans dominated for decades before that.
The state also has one of the country’s most prominent independents – Senator Kyrsten Sinema, the former Democrat who left the party earlier this year and hasn’t said whether or how she’ll run to keep her seat in 2024.
Because of its new status as a swing state, donors are now much more interested in spending money in Arizona. This influx of cash means more groups can afford to gather signatures and promote ballot measures, both of which can cost millions in Arizona.
And with a state Republican party that’s affixed to the far right, there’s an opening for centrist and center-right candidates who could seek support from moderate Republicans and right-leaning independents.
The level of extremism and dysfunction shows why a two-party system with closed primaries doesn’t work, said longtime consultant Chuck Coughlin, who is working with Save Democracy Arizona, a group advancing ranked-choice voting in Arizona.
“You did experience the same election I just did, did you not? You did experience this overwhelming feeling of joy with candidates you had to choose from?” he joked about the vitriolic 2022 campaigns.
“The obvious answer is because the system is so badly broken right now.”
The rise of third parties
Paul Bentz, a Republican consultant and pollster in Arizona, said the dissatisfaction with the two main parties has created a lane for third parties. One big hurdle, though, is that independents often pride themselves on their lack of party affiliation.
“What independents do care about is the candidates, and they want to choose based on the issues,” Bentz said. “So if this gives a platform for an alternative individual to present different issues and let independents choose them, that would be something that’s very attractive to them. But there is no independent party because independents specifically don’t want to be part of a party.”
No Labels, a centrist party founded in 2010, so far has ballot status in Alaska, Oregon, Colorado and Arizona, though the group wants to be on the ballot in 22 states by the end of the year, spokesperson Maryanne Martini said.
It’s not clear if the party will run any candidates in Arizona next year. Martini said the group isn’t actively recruiting candidates at this point.
Soon after No Labels gained ballot status, the Arizona Democratic party sued to try to get it removed. Democrats overall have been more vocally concerned than Republicans about these incoming centrist parties, fearing they will peel off votes from the left and spoil races for Democrats.
In its lawsuit, the Arizona Democratic party alleges No Labels isn’t following requirements for political parties and didn’t follow laws for signature-gathering, so it shouldn’t be recognized as a party in the state.
“Arizonans deserve better and voters deserve to know who is behind this shadowy organization and what potentially nefarious agenda they are pushing,” the Arizona Democratic party spokesperson Morgan Dick said when the lawsuit was announced.
Martini called the lawsuit “undemocratic and outrageous”.
“If either party in Arizona is worried about a No Labels candidate taking votes away from them, we think they should focus more on appealing to the growing commonsense majority they often ignore and less on filing baseless lawsuits to try to kick competitors off the ballot,” she said. The Forward party, a moderate party co-chaired by former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, has legal status in six states and is working toward it in nearly two dozen others this year. In addition to gathering signatures, the party is hosting community events in Arizona to build support, said Chris Hendrickson, the state lead for the party. At a kick-off event in March, four Democratic members of the Arizona house of representatives declared themselves “Forward Democrats”. They aren’t leaving their party, but they support Forward’s mission. Last year, Forward endorsed Democratic US senator Mark Kelly and independent congressional candidate Clint Smith. “I don’t think the objective is to push out any one party or another,” Hendrickson said. “We really need to have four or five legitimate parties who all bring something to the table.” A lot of the consternation over centrist parties relates to the 2024 presidential election. Democrats worry a third-party candidate could cost them the presidency and throw the election to Republicans, possibly to Trump. No Labels said it “is not running and will not run a presidential campaign”. The Forward party also said it won’t run a presidential candidate in 2024 and is primarily interested in state and local elections. Tony Cani, a Democratic consultant, said the third parties would serve more to hurt Democrats than dismantle a two-party system, though he understands voters’ interest in ending two-party dominance. “The problem is adding minor parties doesn’t put an end to a two-party system,” Cani said. “It just creates new minor parties that will end up with the same chance of winning elections as the Libertarian and Green parties.” A push for ranked-choice votingOther groups want to see the way Arizonans vote change to allow more moderate candidates to win elections and force the parties to run more broadly appealing campaigns.
Ranked-choice voting comes in different forms, but typically asks voters to rank candidates in order of their preference. If a voter’s top choice doesn’t get enough votes, their second and subsequent choices are counted until someone gets more than 50% of votes. The system sometimes necessitates an open primary election, where voters don’t need to select which party’s primary to participate in. Coughlin, the consultant who’s working on a potential ballot measure, said the group is still surveying voters to understand whether a measure could be successful. So far, the groups are looking at a final-five version of voting, where all candidates appear on one primary ballot and the top five move to a general.
“Our goal is to make sure that nobody can win in a primary and that all of the decisions are made in November and that we create the greatest amount of competition possible,” he said. Ranked-choice voting confuses some voters, but the idea of open primaries tends to get more support.
Partisan, closed primaries are now paid for by taxpayers in Arizona, and focus groups have strongly favored defunding them, Coughlin said.
To gather enough signatures and then run a campaign to support a ranked-choice ballot measure would cost around $20m. Coughlin said the group would need to start collecting signatures by August.
Though Save Democracy Arizona may not shoot for a ballot measure next year, the idea of ranked-choice voting has Republican lawmakers pushing proposed laws to stop the effort.
Republicans in the legislature sent a question to the ballot for next year that would prohibit anything but the kind of primary elections Arizona has now. That means there could be measures to approve ranked-choice voting and to prohibit it on the same ballot.
They also approved a bill that prohibits ranked-choice voting at any level in Arizona, though that proposal was vetoed. The Democratic governor, Katie Hobbs, said the bill was unnecessary as the practice isn’t used in Arizona, and that ranked-choice voting “is used successfully elsewhere in the country”.