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‘Top-two’ primary campaign submits signatures

Former Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson, with his back to the camera, speaks with the media in front of the 365,486 signature petitions his group, the Open Government Committee, filed on July 5 with the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office. The group seeks to qualify the Open Elections/Open Government Act for the November ballot. The initiative would change Arizona’s primary election system so that the two candidates with the most votes, regardless of party, would advance to the general election. (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

A campaign seeking to create a “top-two” primary election system submitted 365,486 signatures to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office on Thursday, a campaign that has thus far cost nearly $1 million.

The Open Government Committee needed 259,213 signatures to put its proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot. The initiative, known as the Open Elections/Open Government Act, would create an election system in which all candidates for partisan races appear on the same primary ballot and the top two candidates advance to the general election, regardless of party affiliation.

According to campaign finance reports, the committee raised at least $928,000 and spent at least $927,000 in its bid to overhaul Arizona’s election system. Much of the funding has come from Greater Phoenix Leadership, other business groups and CEOs across the state.

Former Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson, one of the leaders of the campaign, said the effort began with a group of CEOs that is concerned about the direction the state is heading.

“It began with a group of CEOs that were very discouraged by what was happening to the state, our inability to focus on economic development and education, and the fact that extreme measures had kind of spilled over the edge,” Johnson said.

Supporters say the top-two primary will elect more moderate candidates and keep the more extreme elements of both parties out of office. Johnson cited the 2011 recall of then-Senate President Russell Pearce, a leading proponent of anti-illegal immigration measures in Arizona, as an example of what the top-two primary might bring.

“The reason that folks were upset about that particular election was they knew if they went back to a Republican primary, the outcome would’ve been no different than it had been before. But the minute all the voters had a right to vote in that primary, you ended up with a very different result,” Johnson said.

California, Louisiana and Washington use forms of the top-two primary. Retired attorney Karen Schroeder, the secretary of the Open Government Committee, said the Arizona initiative was modeled on Washington’s system, which was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008.

Johnson said he is confident that voters will support the Open Elections/Open Government Act if it makes it onto the ballot. The Democrat-turned-independent said he expects the initiative to face opposition from “the parties, extremists, some lobbyists who do well in the existing system and some people who run campaigns in the current system,” but didn’t know how well funded it would be. No opposition campaign has filed yet with the Secretary of State’s Office.

Consultant Joe Yuhas, of the firm Riester, which is working on the initiative, said the campaign will have all the funding it needs, though he wouldn’t say how much he expects the campaign to cost.

“For us to reveal that would be revealing strategy. But obviously we’re well funded. People from both sides of the aisle have stepped forward to help us out to this point. Once we’re certified for the ballot we think our fundraising is going to pick up even more. We’ll raise and spend what we need to to pass the initiative,” Yuhas said.

Thursday was the deadline to file ballot measures with the Secretary of State’s Office.


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