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Report: Eliminating partisan primaries would engage all voters

Kristin Borns, senior policy analyst for Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy, authored a study of Arizona’s legislative primary system and says reforms could help mitigate radical politics. (Cronkite News Service Photo by Channing Turner)

Kristin Borns, senior policy analyst for Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy, authored a study of Arizona’s legislative primary system and says reforms could help mitigate radical politics. (Cronkite News Service Photo by Channing Turner)

Changing legislative primaries so the top vote-getters, regardless of party, advance to the general election would cut down on polarizing legislation, make districts more competitive and further engage Arizona’s growing number of independent voters, according to a report by a nonpartisan research group.

Kristin Borns, a senior policy analyst for Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy, said the system would foster moderation by forcing politicians to court independent voters, who now slightly outnumber registered Democrats and aren’t far behind Republicans.

“It really opens opportunities for independent candidates to appeal to a broader base,” Borns said. “Because you’ll have all voters in that primary, since the primary won’t be one-party-only, you won’t get those party loyalists.”

Primary results often dictate who wins the general election, and independent voters tend not to participate until the general election, she added.

Arizona is one of 13 states using a semi-closed primary system, which allows independents to vote in one party’s primary election. Those voters registered with a party must vote in that party’s primary.

Each Arizona legislative district elects one state senator and two state representatives.

A top-vote-getter system would place all candidates on one ballot, allowing voters to participate regardless of political affiliation. The Morrison Institute report proposed having two candidates advance to the general election, though Borns said primaries for representatives could have four candidates move on.

California adopted a top-vote-getter system in 2010, providing a good example of how the system can work, she said.

Kyle Longley, an ASU professor of history and political science, said the current system causes candidates to tailor themselves to match their more extreme ideological base – the voters most likely to participate in primaries.

“I think it explains why our Legislature is so extreme right now,” he said.

Redistricting could also reduce extreme politics, but only if districts are drawn with a good mix of voters, Longley said. The state’s Republican majority makes him think redistricting won’t offer much of a solution, he said.

“Drawing districts has typically been controlled for the past 30 years by the Republicans, who have made sure to take care of themselves,” he said.

Arguments for reform persuaded Rep. Tom Chabin, D-Flagstaff, to author a resolution this legislative session that would have allowed voters to decide whether Arizona should also adopt a single-ballot primary system, but the bill was never assigned to committee.

“I think our primary election system, which is partisan-safe, contributes to a feeling of detachment by citizens,” Chabin said. “If we open up the primary to everybody, then I am compelled to speak to everybody. I’m going to be compelled to talk to independents and Republicans and address their concerns.”

But Arizona’s political parties don’t see the need for reform.

A call to the Arizona Republican Party’s headquarters was referred to former Mesa lawmaker Thayer Verschoor, who said the GOP would oppose such a change.

“We believe only Republicans should be choosing their nominee,” Verschoor said.

Jennifer Johnson, an Arizona Democratic Party spokeswoman, said the current system works because it allows each party to field its strongest candidates while inviting independents to participate.

Arizona voter registration as of January:

• Republican: 1,142,605, or 35.80 percent
• independent: 1,010,725, or 31.66 percent
• Democrat: 1,008,689, or 31.60 percent
• Libertarian: 24,880, or 0.78 percent
• Green: 5,040, or 0.16 percent

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