Punishing the Arizona Republican Party isn't the best argument for a top-two primary system. But the party's descent does make passage more likely.
The best argument for a top-two primary system isn’t to punish the Arizona Republican Party for its disarray and anti-democratic actions.
But, in politics, context and timing are important. And the descension of the Republican Party in Arizona makes the 2022 ballot a ripe occasion to ask Arizona voters to reconsider the question.
In a top-two primary system, there are no party primaries, or at least none that confer ballot access. All candidates run against each other in the primary, irrespective of party. If no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote, there is a general election pitting the top two vote-getters against each other, again irrespective of party.
The best argument for such a system is that a third of Arizona voters are opting not to register with any political party. Giving preferential ballot access to political parties and having taxpayers pay for their primaries is unfair to those opting out of the partisan game.
Why should taxpayers pick up the tab?
The current system also gives disproportionate political power to small groups of voters and political activists. That distorts governance in unhealthy ways.
The official state Republican Party is engaged in public acts of political cannibalism. It is censuring and disassociating itself from politicians – such as John McCain, Jeff Flake, Doug Ducey and Mitt Romney – who have actually won Republican primaries and general elections in the state.
A disturbingly large number of Republican officials and officeholders were complicit in Donald Trump’s plot to cling to power despite losing the presidential election. The state party chairwoman, Kelli Ward, was a tireless promoter.
GOP congressmen Paul Gosar and Andy Biggs led the effort not to count Arizona’s electoral college votes. A third, Debbie Lesko, also voted to reject them. There were many GOP state legislators willing to do the deed for Trump, to convene and submit his electors, rather than the Biden ones Arizona voters had chosen.
What is the possible justification for giving this cast of characters preferential ballot access and have taxpayers pick up the tab for their primaries?
The left has similar primary problems
The distorting disproportionate influence lies not only on the right. Kyrsten Sinema has publicly stood behind her commitment not to abolish the virtual filibuster now that Democrats are in charge. She thinks the virtual filibuster promotes bipartisanship. I disagree with her and think the virtual filibuster should go. But she is sticking to her guns.
For so doing, some hard-left groups are threatening her with a primary. In a partisan primary, that’s a real threat. In a top-two primary system, it would be much less of one.
The current system gives hugely disproportionate influence to Trumpeteers and hard-left activists. It’s time to junk it.
Make a top-2 system truly nonpartisan
But it is important that, this time, the proposal be truly and thoroughly nonpartisan. No official role for political parties at all. Let them be completely private clubs, recruit their own members, engage in electoral politics however they want, but with no greater legal standing than any other group of voters engaging in electoral politics.
That wasn’t the case with the top-two primary system voters rejected in 2012. In that initiative, candidates could still have party labels next to their name on the ballot, without the parties themselves having any say about who got to use those labels. Candidates could even make up their own parties and get those labels on the ballot.
And it wasn’t really the case with the aborted effort that was mounted in 2016. That initiative would have booted the question of whether to permit party labels on the ballot to the Legislature.
While parties shouldn’t have preferential ballot access or taxpayer-financed primaries, they should get to decide which candidates get to use their brand.
It better fits Arizona's political identity
There needs to be a full legal separation of elections from political parties. Only candidate names on the ballot. No party labels, no deferring the decision to the Legislature.
Political parties and other political organizations would be free to endorse and promote particular candidates. And candidates would be free to communicate such support to voters. But the official electoral process would be a pure, nonpartisan enterprise.
I’ve always been skeptical that a top-two primary would make as big of a difference in who gets elected as some advocates maintain. But it better comports with the current distribution of political identification in Arizona. It would cure the distortion of disproportionate influence conferred by preferential party ballot access and taxpayer-funded party primaries.
And, given recent events, the inevitable opposition of the Arizona Republican Party and GOP officeholders might actually improve the chances of passage in 2022.