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Former Phoenix mayor presses for ‘open’ primaries in Arizona

Paul Johnson, former mayor of Phoenix, is leading an effort to establish open primaries in Arizona. (Photo by Joanne Ingram/Cronkite News Service)

A citizens group wants Arizonans to decide in November 2012 whether to scrap partisan primaries in favor of open elections that would send the highest-polling candidates, regardless of party affiliation, on to the general election.

Supporters say the proposed Open Elections/Open Government Act, which is similar to a measure that California voters approved in 2010, would put an end to small groups of partisan voters effectively deciding elections by turning out for primaries.

Paul Johnson, the former Phoenix mayor serving as chairman of the Open Government Committee, said the change would address two problems with the current system: Many legislative districts aren’t competitive in the general election because one party dominates, and low voter turnout for primaries means that more extreme candidates tend to do better.

“It opens up the elections so more people can vote in the primary election, which effectively will end up opening up government to more ideas and more people who can participate,” Johnson said.

Sometimes referred to as a top-two primary, such an election would have all voters choosing from one slate of candidates. At present, those registered with a political party vote in that party’s primary, while registered independents can choose a party’s primary ballot.

While the proposed initiative says the top two candidates would advance to the general election, primaries for seats in the state House of Representatives currently select two candidates from each party.

The effort is among 13 so far that have individuals and groups trying to place measures on the 2012 ballot. They include a plan to make convicted sex offenders ineligible for parole and a proposal to provide solar energy tax credits to Arizona residents.

Supporters face a July 5 deadline to collect the equivalent of 10 percent of the votes cast for governor in the last election to change statutes and 15 percent for proposed constitutional amendments. For 2012, 172,809 signatures are needed to change a statute and 259,213 are required to amend the Arizona Constitution.

If history holds, some and perhaps many won’t make it to the ballot. In 2010, a successful proposal to legalize medical marijuana was the only citizen initiative that made the ballot out of a dozen efforts registered with the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office.

Tara Blanc, a lecturer at Arizona State University’s School of Public Affairs, said the goal of direct democracy through the initiative process is often trumped by the cost of gathering signatures as well as running a campaign.

“It takes a lot of money to get something passed,” Blanc said. “So not everybody can do it.”

But Johnson said he expects to have the funding to make it, pointing to $20,000 his group has raised so far. The proposal would amend the constitution, meaning supporters must meet the higher signature requirement.

Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said there is no proof that open elections lead to more moderate candidates. He expects the measure to pass because it has prominent supporters but said it wouldn’t achieve its stated purpose because the issue has more to do with the way districts are drawn than who votes in primary elections.

“It represents a radical surgery to our system,” he said.

Johnson said his goal is to equalize the political system and let the voters decide who is right for them.

“Our goal is not to destroy any party,” he said.

Jennifer Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Democratic Party, said party leaders haven’t taken a stand on the initiative but applaud the goal behind it.

“We support anything that will help Arizona elect more mainstream leaders,” Johnson said in a phone interview.

David Berman, a senior research fellow at Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy, said an open primary could produce more moderate candidates, but he expects that such a change would make only a small difference.

“I think it’s probably a step forward, a step in the right direction,” Berman said in a phone interview.

Here are some other citizen initiatives proposed for the November 2012 ballot:

Property tax limits

Chairwoman Lynne Weaver said her initiative, a proposed constitutional amendment modeled after California’s Proposition 13, would impose a limit on the amount of property taxes residents are required to pay by placing a 0.5 percent tax cap on residential property and a 1 percent tax cap on all other properties. The initiative also would limit property valuation increases to no more than 2 percent per year.

Weaver said the goal is to promote an honest and simple tax system. “The intention actually is to put power back into the hands of the people,” she said.

Violent offenders

Chaired by the Justice in Sentencing Committee’s Tawna Leeson, the measure would deny parole to anyone convicted of a sexual or violent felony, requiring the individual to serve a full sentence. Leeson said her group has no plans to raise money.

Legislative immunity

The initiative, chaired by Jason Tsinnijinnie of Mesa, is a constitutional amendment that would prohibit state lawmakers from using legislative immunity, which prevents them from being prosecuted for crimes other than felonies, acts of treason or breaches of the peace during a legislative session or 15 days before one begins. Frank Nelson, the group’s treasurer, said the initiative meant to hold political leaders accountable for their actions.

Solar tax credit

The measure would provide a $2.25-per-watt personal tax credit to homeowners who install solar energy devices such as solar panels. Chairman Robert Hoskins of the Arizona Solar Power Society said the initiative would lower electricity bills, provide new jobs and benefit the environment.

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