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Arizona’s independents are largely powerless in primary elections

Extra hurdles to voting mean activists in major parties have outsized influence on November lineup


As much as politicians and analysts talk about the importance of “independents” in elections, Arizona’s unaffiliated voters actually have little influence in selecting the candidates who will be on the ballot.

About 34% of Arizona’s electorate is made up of independent or “other” voters that aren’t registered to a major political party, but when it comes to voting in primary elections – where the final list of candidates for November is determined – that number dropped to around 10% in Maricopa County alone in 2020, even while overall turnout hit record levels in both the county and state.

The biggest reason why independents don’t vote in primary elections is because Arizona lacks an open-primary system. The 2022 primary is on Aug. 2 but early voting begins on July 6 which is also when ballots will ship to those who are on the early voting list or requested one for the election. Requests can be made through Arizona’s Voter Information Portal. The registration deadline to vote in the primary is July 5.

Registered Republicans and Democrats will automatically receive a ballot for their party’s primary races. Independents, however, must actively request a party’s ballot, either via the mail or at a polling place.

Relatively few of them bother to do so.

In 2020, for example, just more than 106,000 out of 800,000 registered independents in Maricopa County returned one of the party primary ballots. There were 1.3 million independents in the state, but how many actually submitted a ballot in the primary is not readily available. Joe Biden, Mark Kelly, Doug Ducey, Kyrsten Sinema and others all relied on appealing to independent voters in the state to emerge victorious –– so it raises the question why should those voters have to climb an extra hurdle just to participate in an election that decides who will be on the ballot come November?

Open primaries

Paul Bentz, a Republican pollster and consultant for Highground Public Affairs, said it doesn’t have to be this way.

“A third of our electorate is not treated fairly in the primary elections and our taxpayers are funding private party elections,” Bentz said.

Bentz is in favor of open primaries because under that model, all voters are treated equally. The system is different in all of the state’s municipalities, except for Tucson. Not only are those local races nonpartisan, but registered Republicans, Democrats and Libertarians all compete against one another and if the top vote-getter does not receive 50% plus one vote, it goes to a run-off election. This type of election does not require a voter to choose their ballot. Instead, everybody would receive the same ballot –– depending on where they live with local races –– like they would in November. This system is used in a number of other states, including neighboring California. Take Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego’s first mayoral victory in 2018 as a prime example of how it works for the city.

Gallego and her top challenger, former council member Daniel Valenzuela, are both Democrats. They were joined on the Nov. 6 ballot with Moses Sanchez, a Republican, and Nicholas Sarwark, a Libertarian; though all four were listed as “nonpartisan.” None of the candidates received 50% plus one vote so Gallego , with 44.6%, and Valenzuela, with 26.3%, were set to continue for a run-off election the following March. Gallego emerged victorious.

That’s what it could look like for state and legislative elections. That would open up each race to the full electorate, with as many voters participating as possible rather than the current system where low turnout in a primary can determine who wins in November, particularly in districts where one party is dominant.

It’s at least one option, Bentz said, adding that other options can get a little more complicated, like throwing in ranked-choice voting, which could involve a pool of 10 candidates in a race that gets narrowed to five who then face off in the general election to be ranked again until there’s a winner.

Past attempts have failed.

Opening primaries is not a new idea in Arizona, but two recent attempts failed. The 2012 effort, Arizona Top-Two Primary Initiative, failed after several court challenges because the yes campaign ran out of money. Voters significantly said no in that case by a two-to-one margin. (An effort in 2016 died only a couple of months after it launched.) Arizona Supreme Court Justice Bill Montgomery, who was Maricopa County attorney at the time, led the no campaign. He was joined by his current court colleague Clint Bolick, who was at the Goldwater Institute, in the opposition.

Bolick wrote an op-ed for the Tucson Sentinel claiming the measure would “imperil freedom in our state” and said it was bad for conservatives since the approach was pushed as a way to get more moderates elected.

Montgomery argued that an open primary free-for-all would result in candidates from the same party at the top of the ballot in a general election, as happened in Gallego’s case in Phoenix. If Arizona attempted another ballot measure, it could potentially go before the Arizona Supreme Court, where Montgomery and Bolick could decide its fate. The court has shown a recent track record against the state’s initiative process.

On the pro-side of the 2012 effort was former Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson, who is still trying for open primaries a decade later. He now sits on the board of Save Democracy Inc. and told the Arizona Mirror that the state political parties have too much of a say over candidates under the current model.

He said less than 10% of Republicans and less than 10% of Democrats are choosing the candidates, by voting in the primary, which can lead to a “lesser of two evils” situation for the remaining voters in November.

Both parties have shifted farther left and right, respectively, he said, and yet they are making it harder for those in the middle who don’t identify as partisan to get a say in who will ultimately represent them. That is bad for Democracy.

The only candidates who have to appeal to their entire district live in one of five competitive areas from the recent maps the redistricting commission just approved, he said. The rest are safely elected in the primary.

“After you get done addressing 5 or 6% of the public, you’re done,” he said. “They run in a system that constrains their ability to work across the aisle and to pursue their best ideas. They just do.” That’s something seen everyday at the Arizona Capitol, where Republicans and Democrats see each other as the enemy and refuse to work together on any major issue, he said. Under an open primary system, legislators would not be focused on issues like debunked fraud claims from 2020. We’d be talking about education and water “because they’re going to be incentivized to talk about it,” he said. “They’ll be disincentivized to talk about the other things.”

The current system is more than just a power-play by major party leaders, Johnson said. There are powerful interest groups behind the scenes that want control of the power and benefit from the limited primary system. He wouldn’t name which interest groups, but told the Mirror to start with the groups on both sides pushing extreme ideals.

A question of fairness

Both Bentz and Johnson want a system that treats all voters fairly and equally. Ideally, voters should “have a choice to pick whatever candidates they want to vote for and the candidates all have the same signature and filing requirements,” Bentz said.

He added that the unaffiliated voters don’t want to “identify” with a party just to vote on their candidates because then they don’t get a say on the other party. Maybe they support a Republican for governor and a Democrat for secretary of state, he said, but don’t want to wait until November to get to choose who that candidate will be.

Ultimately, Bentz said what open primaries do is push candidates to appeal to all of their constituents rather than just a small pool who determine the winner in a low-turnout primary election.

“I think that the broader electorate is more motivated by slightly more aspirational and positive messages and so I think that it would likely change the tenor and tone of some of these races as well,” Bentz said.

But change will not happen overnight.

Johnson said he is playing the long game, informing voters what other options there are so they all can not only understand but also feel included.

“It’s a lifetime game. I don’t even know that we’ll fix it in four years. It’s a 10- or 20- or 30-year fix, but I do believe if you play the long game I really believe we represent the majority,” he said, adding that the only way is through a ballot initiative.

Still, Johnson said 2024 is his goal because presidential elections have higher turnout than statewide elections in Arizona.

“I think that’s our year,” he said.


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