Arizona Republic: Arizona open-primary system is debated

This article appeared in the Arizona Republic:

by Mary Jo Pitzl

A bid to restructure Arizona’s primary elections would either neuter the state’s political parties or empower them, increase voter turnout or depress it, according to participants in a forum Wednesday that explored the “open primaries” concept.

The back-and-forth over the proposed Open Elections/Open Government Act is a likely preview of the debate that will play out this summer if the measure qualifies for the Nov. 6 ballot.

The proposal, the subject of an ongoing petition-signature drive, would put all the candidates for a given office on the same primary ballot. The top two vote-getters would advance to the general election. Candidates could run with a party label or opt to leave it out.

The proposal is similar to one California voters adopted two years ago, which will get its first test in next month’s primary election.

For Steve Peace, who shepherded the measure in California, an open-primary system revolves around the individual voter, not a political-party machine.

“At its core, it’s about a one-to-one relationship with your district,” Peace told a packed crowd at a forum sponsored by the O’Connor House, an organization started by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to drive civil discussion on public policy.

Peace said society is disenchanted with the traditional party structure, as witnessed by a rising tide of independent voters. These voters have nowhere to turn in the current system, in which parties hold their own primaries. Although Arizona allows independents to vote in primaries as long as they pick one partisan ballot and stick with it, few participate.

Peace said the open-primary system would mirror the shift in voter attitudes and increase turnout by letting everyone vote in a single primary.

But Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News, said such proposals make it even harder for minor parties, such as the Greens and Libertarians, to elect one of their own.

Washington state has not seen a significant increase in voter turnout even though voters there approved an open-primary system in 2004, he said.

Besides, a move to downplay partisan primaries violates a person’s right to free association, such as with a political party, Winger said.

Proponents of the measure were outside the event at Burton Barr Central Library collecting signatures. They must collect 259,213 registered voters’ signatures by July to qualify for the November ballot.

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