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We need to revamp how we elect people

Opinion by Tucson attorney Si Schorr

The following is the opinion and analysis of the writer:

The presidential election has exposed and alarmed us to the unprecedented levels of polarization, partisan division and rancor extant in the nation and what it can lead to.

In part, this stems from structural weaknesses in governance and cries out for fundamental reform. How can we realistically achieve such change so that we can get back to addressing issues that Arizonans care about and away from extremism and distractions?

Katherine Gehl and Michael R. Porter in “the politics industry” argue for wholesale systemic reform and reengineering the rules that govern elections and legislating to restore healthy competition and deliver outcomes that matter to citizens. Many of their recommendations will require constitutional and national reforms.

One recommendation that can be implemented in Arizona, however, is by instituting “final-five voting” that consists of open primaries where the top five candidates qualify for the general election.

We could do ranked-choice voting, or RCV, in the general elections. Voters would rank candidates in the order of preference and candidates with the majority (50% plus 1) of first choice votes win. If no candidate received a majority of first-choice votes, the last-place candidate is eliminated and those who marked that candidate as number one get their second choice counted instead. The process continues for several rounds until a candidate emerges with a majority. RCV has been adopted statewide in Maine and recently in Alaska, as well as in 15 cities, including Oakland, San Francisco, Berkeley, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Santa Fe and New York City. So, how can we do this in Arizona? Arizona has had a highly regarded top two nonpartisan open primary system for many years, albeit limited to cities and towns with the city of Tucson being the one notable exception. We don’t have RCV, but in a prescient 1981 anomaly, Tucson used what was tantamount to RCV in awarding a cable TV franchise. The Arizona Daily Star (October 6, 1981) reported the unique procedure, in which Cox Cable Communications was the first choice of only three members of the City Council, but in the points procedure set up, specifically for the cable TV vote, Cox was able to win enough second- and third-place support to emerge the victor on the fourth and final round of voting.

In Arizona, we cannot easily remedy all the systemic problems addressed in “the politics industry” but we can do something about one core game changing issue – how we conduct our primaries. A root cause of the extreme nationwide polarization is the primary system used in most states, including Arizona, and the fear by candidates of “being primaried.” Phoenix political strategist Chuck Coughlin points out that in Arizona, both the Democratic and Republican parties are private organizations receiving billions of dollars in taxpayers subsidized support to run their primary elections.

In our state, over 31% of registered voters are unaffiliated on the primary ballot. These “independents” must request a Democratic or Republican ballot if they wish to vote in the primaries. In presidential preference primaries, this same group must actually re-register as either a Republican or Democrat to vote for president. Coughlin persuasively argues that Arizona needs to end publicly funded partisan primaries and adopt an open, nonpartisan primary system where all candidates, regardless of party affiliation or lack thereof, can run and then the top two candidates advance to the general election. There has been some criticism of the top two nonpartisan open primary systems adopted in California and Washington. Some favor top two, three, four or five open primaries. They have also been attacked as “jungle primaries” and been criticized for sometimes sending two members of the same party to the general election.

Some of the criticism was addressed in an article by C.R. Grose, of the Department of Political Science at USC. He concluded that legislators elected in the top two primary systems are more inclined to seek compromise rather than promote partisanship than those elected in closed primary systems, stating, “there is evidence that legislators from open primary states or open/semi-closed primary states are more moderate.”

A basic problem facing lawmakers and their ability to support good and sound policies is the fear of “getting primaried,” which such reforms would do away with. Electoral process reform options are increasingly gaining momentum as more Americans, Arizona included, realize that our political system is broken and needs fixing.

We have it within our power, using the initiative process, to bring about a fundamental and systemic reform of our governance systems. We can vote to choose a top two (three, four or even top five) nonpartisan open primary coupled with RCV, and make a meaningful difference in reducing the polarization and partisan divide we suffer from today. Those interested need to get together, discuss and organize for change.

SL “Si” Schorr is a senior partner with Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie LLP. He has been engaged in state and local governance over the past 60 years. Most recently he was chairman of the Arizona State Transportation Board and founding chair of the Pima County Regional Transportation Commission and was a founding board member of the Southern Arizona Leadership Council.


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