Western Free Press: Arizona Top Two Instant Runoff Not the Motivator Thought To Be

This post originated from Western Free Press:

Arizona’s Top Two or Jungle Primary initiative is bad for Arizona and voters. The election change robs voters of their choice and rewards big money interests.

In November, Arizona voters will decide whether or not to participate in an election systems experiment. The Open Government Committee proposed an initiative attempting to change Arizona’s election process from its current semi-closed primary to an instant runoff system, otherwise known as an open primary.

Currently, Arizona’s election process allows for any parties registered in Arizona to nominate a candidate for the general election through a semi-closed primary election. In the primary election, anyone with a declared party affiliation automatically receives a party specific ballot that allows him or her to nominate his or her party’s candidate. Independent and Party-Not-Determined voters are legally allowed to request a primary ballot for the party they desire, whether it be Republican, Democrat, or any other contested party primary. Nominated candidates meet in a general election where all registered voters can choose which candidate best represents their political principles.

The Open Government Committee’s proposed initiative replaces the semi-closed party primary system with an instant runoff system. All voters, regardless of their party affiliation, vote for any primary candidate, regardless of his or her party affiliation. The two candidates that receive the most votes move on to the general election.

Supporters of the initiative theorize that the new form of election will increase voter participation, especially amongst Independent and Party-Not-Determined voters. A main point of the theory contains that, without rigid party designations, Independents and Party-Not-Determined voters will be motivated to get more involved in the primary process. Other states that have implemented similar measures are not seeing the desired results.

In 2010, California passed instant runoff legislation, opening their primary process to all voters and candidates. Supporters hypothesized that voter participation would increase, and therefore democracy advanced. California has not produced the desired results. California’s voting history shows cyclical voting patterns dependent on candidates and issues. During the 2000 Primary, both Republicans and Democrats needed to nominate presidential candidates. Voter turnout during that primary election was 40.3%. In 2008, California found themselves in a similar situation, needing to nominate both parties’ presidential nominees. True to form, 40% of California voters turned out to the primary election.

The first data gathered since California’s recent election system change was the June 5, 2012 primary election. The 2012 Primary election was similar to the 2004 Primary election in that only one party needed to nominate a presidential candidate. While there are several minor differences, the primary election process was by far the biggest difference between these two elections. This was to be the first example of how an instant runoff system engages Independent and Party-Not-Determined voters, thus increasing voter turnout across every election, from federal to state to local. In the 2004 Primary election, California’s voter turnout was 31%. Similarly, in the 2012 Primary election, California’s voter turnout was 31%.

The theory that instant runoff primary elections increase voter participation does not look to be correct. Given California’s experience, the Open Government Committee’s initiative will fail in its desire to increase Independent and Party-Not-Determined voter participation.


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