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Group plans to ask Arizona voters to outlaw partisan primary elections

A group of business, philanthropic and political leaders has given up on the idea of trying to get Arizonans to adopt a system of ranked-choice voting.

Political consultant Chuck Coughlin said polling for the group, Save Arizona Democracy, found insufficient interest in the sometimes controversial and confusing plan to have a single election of all candidates for a particular office and have voters rank their choices of first, second and beyond.

But Coughlin said the same polling shows there is a dissatisfaction with the current system of partisan primaries and the resultant election of candidates who cater more to the fringes of their own political parties than to the center.

So the group members are putting the finishing touches on their plan to convince Arizona voters to scrap the current method of nominating candidates by selling them on the idea of how much better the system could be.

Their plan, being prepared for the 2024 ballot, is a constitutional amendment to outlaw having the state run, and taxpayers pay for, partisan primaries.

Instead, there would be a wide-open primary where anyone who got the requisite number of signatures could be on the ballot, and all Arizonans, regardless of party affiliation, or lack thereof, could vote. Then the top vote-getters would face off in the general election, also regardless of their party registrations.

So there could be two Republicans competing for governor or a legislative seat in the general election. Or two Democrats. Or any combination, which also could include independents.

GOP lawmakers’ competing plan

Such a plan is likely to draw resistance from the parties that benefit from the current system.

For instance, state Rep. Alexander Kolodin, a Scottsdale Republican, isn’t convinced voters are willing to trade in a system and process they know and understand — even if they don’t like it — for something radically different.

Republican lawmakers have already proposed a constitutional amendment, HCR2033, that, if approved by voters in 2024, would preempt any effort to end partisan primary elections.

Coughlin’s mission is to ensure that the Save Arizona Democracy plan outpolls the GOP plan. That’s because if both plans are approved, the one with the larger number of votes gets enacted.

Support for equal ballot access

The way Save Arizona Democracy will explain its plan to voters starts with what the polling has shown to be basic beliefs, Coughlin said.

“Everybody wants to see all voters and all candidates treated equally,’’ he said.

That means equal access to the ballot.

The current system is set up to benefit partisan candidates. Their signature requirement to get on the primary ballot is based on the number of people registered in that party.

Then the winner of each party’s primary gets a guaranteed slot on the general election ballot.

Political independents have no primary.

That requires them to seek direct access to the general election ballot. More to the point, that means they could have to get up to six times more signatures than partisan candidates to get their name before voters.

The result has been a dearth of independent candidates for office even though registered political independents outnumber Republicans and Democrats in Arizona. No independents have ever been elected to the Legislature.

That partisan advantage would disappear with a single open primary.

Broader appeal by candidates

The argument is that having all the names on a single ballot — and having all registered voters able to make choices — could force candidates to broaden their appeal.

By comparison, one party or the other now has a registration edge in about 25 of the state’s 30 legislative districts.

So in a district dominated by Republicans, candidates need to appeal only to GOP registrants — and specifically those who tend to turn out in partisan primaries. Then, with that registration edge, the winners of those primaries become all but unbeatable in the general election.

The same is true in Democrat-dominated districts.

Only thing is, Coughlin conceded, as much as people may not like the current partisan primaries, they at least are familiar with them. That leaves the question of whether the voters who go to the polls in 2024 will make the leap of faith that what is being proposed is better than what they know and understand.

“That has been one of the critical discussion points within our committee,’’ Coughlin said. But he said the polling continues to create a simple message he believes will find a responsive chord among voters.

“What we’re doing is creating equality for all voters and all candidates in Arizona, which is enormously popular,’’ he said. It would ensure that the top picks of all voters in all races advance to the general election, regardless of party.

‘The illusion of choice’

Kolodin, however, said Arizonans like political parties, which represent a shorthand about what a candidate believes.

“The point of the political parties is to be like, ‘Here’s the person who we think is the best exemplar of the conservative or liberal point of view to present to general election voters,’ ‘’ he said.

Kolodin does agree with Coughlin on one point.

He said eliminating partisan primaries and having everyone run against each other could lead to the election of more moderates. But he disagrees with Coughlin that would be a good thing.

“Politics, in that case, doesn’t present a real choice at all,’’ Kolodin said.

“If you have a system that’s set up so that only moderates ever win ... the establishment wing of both parties ... what’s the point?’’ he said, mirroring a view held by some that there is little difference between the mainstream elements of the Republicans and Democrats. “So, it’s the illusion of choice.’’

While the opposition to open primaries in Arizona is coming from Republicans, it would be wrong to see this as a strictly partisan fight, Kolodin said.

“In states where Democrats have a strong majority, they oppose this like the devil opposes holy water,’’ he said. “But here, in Arizona, they think it’s to their advantage.’’

Save Arizona Democracy isn’t getting into deep details, during the campaign, of what the new system would look like. That raises the question: Would voters be willing to scrap the current system and support an initiative that won’t spell out in detail exactly how nonpartisan primaries would work?

“What we are not doing is dictating the outcome,’’ Coughlin said. “We can explain that. We can say it’s up to the governor and the Legislature to decide that.’

Campaign funding

Even what Coughlin calls a simplified plan won’t be an easy sell.

He figures it will take about $5 million to get the signatures to put the issue on the 2024 ballot. That doesn’t count an equal amount of spending he said will be necessary to convince voters to approve it.

The group has not yet filed any campaign finance reports and won’t have to until it starts the signature-gathering campaign. But Coughlin said a large chunk of the funds is coming from two of the group’s board members: Sarah Smallhouse and Don Budinger.

Smallhouse, a Tucson native, is president of the Thomas R. Brown Foundation, named after her father, who was a founder of the now-defunct Burr-Brown Corp. The foundation provides grants for research, education, workforce development and civic leadership.

Budinger is chairman and founding director of the Rodel Foundation, which also awards grants.


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