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Campaign launches to open AZ primary elections

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Campaign launches to open AZ primary elections

Sep 20, 2023 | 12:09 pm ET
By Gloria Rebecca Gomez
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Campaign launches to open AZ primary elections, implement ranked choice voting
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Photo by Natasha Khan | Cronkite News

There are more Arizona voters registered with no political party than with either of the two major parties, but primary elections in the Grand Canyon State continue to operate under a two-party system — but a newly launched campaign aiming for a spot on the 2024 ballot seeks to change that. 

Dubbed the “Make Elections Fair Arizona Act,” an initiative filed Sept. 18 would open up primaries in the Grand Canyon State to any candidate or voter, regardless of their party affiliation. Currently, voters who aren’t registered with a political party can participate in the August primary elections by requesting a partisan ballot, allowing them to have a voice in choosing the Democratic or Republican nominees for office. 

That system is different, however, for presidential primary elections. Only voters registered with the political party can vote in those contests, so any unaffiliated voters who wish to participate must change the party affiliation on their voter registration to reflect the primary they wish to vote in. 

In both cases, the restrictions mean that the percentage of unaffiliated voters — commonly referred to as independents — who do vote in primaries is dramatically lower than their actual share of the electorate.

What does the initiative do? 

If voters approve the measure, future primary elections would be distinctly different. Instead of separate ballots for voters to select candidates from their own party affiliations, every candidate would go on one ballot and voters would be allowed to choose their favorite, regardless of whether their party allegiances match. 

But it would be up to the legislature and governor to determine how many candidates would advance to the general election.

If an office is held only by one person, as in the case of the governor or the attorney general, then a minimum of two candidates and no more than five will advance to the general election. If the legislature opts to allow only two candidates to advance, then whichever gets a majority of votes would win the general election. But if lawmakers decide to let three or more candidates appear on general election ballots, the initiative would require the winner be determined by ranked-choice voting.

In that system, voters sort candidates by most to least favorite and winners are determined through a process of elimination if a majority isn’t immediately awarded. 

In election contests where more than one seat is up for grabs — for instance, races for the Arizona House of Representatives, where voters select two winners — the legislature can choose between four and seven candidates to advance from the primary to the general election. Lawmakers would be allowed to establish a ranked-choice voting system for those general elections, but are not required to, no matter how many candidates are on the general election ballot.

Exact rules for how that process is carried out would be left up to the legislature. 

“It is up to a future legislature to make that decision, and a future governor,” said Chuck Coughlin, president of Arizona Highground, a public affairs firm spearheading the initiative’s campaign. “The simple principle we’re asserting here is equality and fairness, and eliminating partisan influence in elections.” 

Placing the logistics of the RCV provisions into the hands of legislators eliminates the risk of overcomplicating the act, and helps it focus on encouraging fairness in primaries, Coughlin said. If voters approve the measure, the act won’t go into effect until 2026, but lawmakers would have to have a new law on the books governing how many candidates would be on general election ballots by Nov. 1, 2025. If they don’t, Secretary of State Adrian Fontes would be tasked with setting those rules and procedures. 

The act also would prohibit any public money from being used to fund a political party election, including those held to elect precinct committee officers. Presidential preference primaries are exempted from that prohibition, as long as all voters are allowed to vote in them without restrictions on their party affiliations. (Under current law, only voters registered with a political party can vote in that party’s presidential primary election.) And the signature requirements for placing a candidate on the ballot would be uniform, unlike current standards under which independent candidates face significantly higher quotas to qualify.  

Coughlin said the purpose is to inject fairness and competition back into elections. 

“We’re just trying to assert that all voters and all candidates in Arizona be treated equally — that every voter has a right to vote in every election and every candidate has a right to run in every election,” he said.   

Partisanship has come increasingly under the spotlight as both the country and Arizona deal with a surging electorate of unaffiliated voters. In Arizona, which saw only five of its state legislature’s general elections result competitive, public support for changing the primary model is particularly strong. A July survey found that as much as 80% of Arizonans were in favor of nonpartisan primaries

That survey, which also determined that a narrow majority, just 52%, of Arizonans approved of ranked choice voting, was responsible in part for clarifying the scope of the Make Elections Fair Arizona act. The campaign behind the initiative originally sought to give voters the opportunity to implement RCV in the state

Lawmakers lashed out by sending their own constitutional amendment to the ballot that would make any ranked-choice voting illegal in Arizona, setting up a head to head match with the Make Elections Fair Arizona Act.

What is the opposition?

House Concurrent Resolution 2033, approved only by Republican lawmakers in a challenge to the rumored RCV initiative, conflicts with the Make Elections Fair Arizona Act. The resolution mandates that the direct primary model, which is already enshrined in the state constitution, should supersede all other voting models, including RCV. In a direct primary, voters choose their preferred candidates directly.

As the two measures amend the constitution, the final word is up to the voters of Arizona. Only they can make changes to the Arizona Constitution. And in a scenario in which both succeed in passing, the ballot initiative with the most support will win out and the other will be nullified. 

Despite that possibility, the campaign behind the Make Elections Fair Act won’t be launching a counter messaging effort. Coughlin is confident it isn’t necessary, given the level of public support for more equitable elections. 

“I think (the act) is destined to get more votes than they are, because theirs is a reflection of the current system, which isn’t popular and is not working,” he said. 

But the Arizona Republican Party disagrees, and has vowed to work to ensure that the measure is defeated. AZGOP Chairman Jeff DeWit slammed the act for its potential to cause “confusion and voter disenfranchisement”.

“Republicans don’t want Democrats voting for our primary candidates, and I’m sure Democrats don’t want us voting for theirs,” he said in an emailed statement. “All unaffiliated voters, or as they are commonly referred to as, Independents, already can and do vote on the primaries to make their voices heard. The AZGOP will mobilize to block attempts at taking the power of the vote away from hard-working Arizona citizens by special interest groups with convoluted voting schemes like this.” 

What’s next? 

The act is a constitutional amendment, and faces a high bar to clear to get on the ballot. The next step, once the language is looked over and approved by Legislative Council, is for the campaign to gather a minimum of 383,923 voter signatures to be greenlit for the ballot. Campaigns usually aim to collect far above that threshold to ensure a buffer against unverifiable signatures. It’s an expensive venture, and Coughlin estimates just the signature gathering will cost as much as $7 million. The campaign has already collected more than $4.5 million from in-state donors. 

***CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that the initiative would require ranked-choice voting be used in primary elections; it does not. The Make Elections Fair Arizona Act would mandate ranked-choice voting be used in some general elections, but only if the legislature determines that more than the minimum required number of candidates advances from the primary to the general election. The headline has also been changed to reflect these changes.