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The war over Arizona's state budget is even more proof that our elections are broken

Opinion: The Arizona Legislature has one job - to pass a budget. But already some lawmakers are talking about a shutdown because they can't work with others.

The 2023 legislative session is already living down to low expectations.

Gov. Katie Hobbs unveiled the first budget of her tenure. That set of proposed priorities – emphasis on “proposed” – is enough to stagnate the entire process.

At least, that’s what House Appropriations Chair David Livingston seemed to declare when he said at the end of a legislative hearing that a plan for how to lay off state employees on July 1 would have to be discussed.

You read that right. Arizona is not in a recession. Budget belt-tightening doesn’t have to happen right now. But Republicans with a narrow majority have drawn a partisan line in the sand.

Few voters choose who's on the ballot

Lawmakers are tasked with only one responsibility during a legislative session – approve a budget for the next fiscal year and transmit it to the governor for his or her signature. The hope is for that to occur near the 100-day mark.

But Rep. Livingston’s musings make it sound like we should simply forget about budget work being accomplished in the next five months. That’s nothing new, of course, with a system that serves party activists and loyalists.

A tiny percentage of the state’s electorate has been choosing the major parties’ general election nominees for decades. And on a regular basis, at least one of those nominees has proven to be so unpalatable that some voters choose what’s behind “door number one” – hoping for the best – or just leaving that part of the ballot blank.

A more open system that would allow all voters – including our growing number of independents – to pick whatever candidate they preferred regardless of party preference could have led to the “red wave” many pundits expected last November.

Why an expected 'red wave' fizzled

But the nominees at the top of the GOP ticket preferred to focus on unproven claims about widespread election fraud in 2020 because that’s what many of their most active supporters wanted. Except that clearly went against what a majority of the state’s voters preferred.

Traditional conservatives such as gubernatorial candidate Karrin Taylor Robson would have focused a general election campaign on pledging to build on recent economic successes or exploring pragmatic solutions to our dramatic water challenges.

Rather, a majority of independents and a not-insignificant number of Republicans were left unable to stomach fiery rhetoric that didn’t address real problems and sent Hobbs, Adrian Fontes, Kris Mayes and Mark Kelly to the winner’s circle.

Because so many outcomes have essentially been decided in the primary, nearly one-third of registered voters are left without the ability to decide who will actually represent them, even though their tax dollars funded the party primaries.

How Arizona could get better candidates

Allowing independents to freely take part rather than requiring them to choose a Republican or Democratic ballot would be productive and groundbreaking. It’s one integral option to improve our elections.

If candidates faced true competition and had to address the concerns of a wider swath of voters – branching beyond “preaching to the choir,” “feeding red meat to the base” or countless other clichés we’ve been forced to swallow in recent cycles – then we probably wouldn’t have to hear from candidates who, despite what they say over the months of campaigning,, won’t be able to complete the one actual requirement of their job, after all.

Rather, there would be healthy arguing about what direction Arizona should go and how to accomplish great things. Those arguments would be taking place throughout an election year and beyond, instead of just when it’s practical for victors of partisan primaries to run to the center … expecting voters to not only have short memories but to accept a broken system that rarely offers exceptional choices.

Steve Goldstein is executive director of Save Democracy AZ, dedicated to exploring alternative nonpartisan voting systems.Reach him at


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