Gov. Jan Brewer wants lawmakers to refer a measure to the ballot to correct what she views as the most glaring problem with a proposal to create a “top-two” primary election system in Arizona.
But while many lawmakers have talked for months about referring a competing ballot measure that could potentially sink the Open Elections/Open Government Act in November, Brewer wants to keep the focus of a planned special session narrow.
Brewer spokesman Matthew Benson said the governor has spoken with Senate President Steve Pierce and House Speaker Andy Tobin about calling the Legislature into special session early next week for a legislative referral that would amend the initiative, if it passes.
The proposed referral would require candidates in a top-two primary to disclose their party affiliation on the ballot, which is not required by the initiative. Benson said Brewer, Pierce and Tobin have agreed on a ballot referral that would require candidates in top-two primary system to list their party affiliation.
Benson said candidates could withhold their party affiliation for nefarious reasons, and that Brewer believes voters should know what party they are voting for.
“Frankly it’s appalling that the, ‘good government crowd’ would come forward with a ballot initiative that would allow candidates to basically pull the wool over the eyes of voters by hiding their political affiliation. I don’t think it takes much of an imagination to conjure up some pretty disastrous consequences of allowing this to take place,” Benson said.
Paul Johnson, the chairman of the Open Government Committee, said he suspects that the referral is intended only to confuse voters and divide the vote. He noted that some GOP lawmakers during the regular session were pushing for an alternative ballot measure that would compete with the top-two initiative.
“If that’s their single biggest issue, gosh, I just wish they would’ve told me six months ago. I probably would’ve supported additional clarification,” Johnson said of the party affiliation issue raised by the Governor’s Office. “But that’s not what this is about. This is a red herring.”
The language of the initiative says candidates have the choice whether to put their party affiliation on the ballot.
If they choose to list their affiliation, candidates must be listed under the party on their voter registration form. But it states that “candidates shall have the choice” whether they want their party preference on the ballot.
“That could hardly be clearer that is, in fact, a choice whether you want to declare your party preference,” Benson said.
Johnson said lawmakers or the Governor’s Office had months to speak with the Open Government Committee about their concerns. But no one did so, he said.
“We are very suspicious,” Johnson said.
But while many lawmakers, as well as the governor, are opposed to the idea of a top-two primary in general, Benson said Brewer does not want the Legislature to refer a rival measure to the Open Elections/Open Government Act. Brewer is hoping that voters will reject the initiative, but is worried about unintended consequences of crafting a competing measure on such short notice, Benson said.
“At this point and under timing constraints that we face, the governor believes it’s best to address the most urgent shortcoming of this initiative, and that is the party identification issue,” Benson said. “The danger any time you get into a more sweeping reform proposal with short time to discuss it is you can accidentally make things worse.”
Lawmakers in a special session can only introduce and pass legislation that is included in the governor’s special session call.
“And I know the governor’s made it clear that she’s not interested in this referendum turning into a Christmas tree,” Benson said. “There’s always that concern, but if she calls the special session, it will be because she’s comfortable that they have an agreement in place.”
The Open Elections/Open Government Act would create a “top-two” primary in which all candidates would run on the same ballot in the primary, and the top two candidates would advance to the general election, regardless of party affiliation.
The top-two primary would affect all partisan races in Arizona except for presidential races. The initiative would also make it easier for independent candidates to qualify for the ballot.
Candidates in a top-two primary can list their party preference or registration with a description of up to 20 characters, but are not required to.
Several lawmakers confirmed today that they’ve been contacted by leadership or staff about the possible special session.
Rep. Debbie Lesko, the House majority whip, said House leadership had a conference call on Thursday to discuss a possible special session for Monday or Tuesday, though nothing has been finalized.
Rep. Jeff Dial, R-Chandler, said he was contacted by both leadership and Gov. Jan Brewer’s office and told “there’s a high probability” that the session will happen on Monday.
“We’re trying to get an idea of the interest among members and also their availability,” Lesko said. “In the House side it looks good.”
Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, said Senate staff contacted her this morning and said the special session may be on Tuesday or Wednesday.
Lawmakers said they didn’t know if any ballot language had been finalized, though Rep. Steve Court, R-Mesa, said he was presented with a list of bullet points on the possible ballot measure. Court, the House majority leader, said he did not recall the details.
Court said he didn’t know if any final decisions had been made.
“We were trying to come up with something that the governor might support, but at this point we haven’t heard anything,” Court said. “They were going to go back to the governor and I have not heard anything since then.”
House Speaker Andy Tobin, R-Paulden, refused to comment on whether he’d spoken with Brewer or Pierce about a possible special session next week, saying he wouldn’t speak publicly about private conversations with the governor.
But the Paulden Republican said discussions have been underway for months about a ballot referral on the Open Elections/Open Government Act, which would eliminate partisan primary elections in Arizona.
“We have been working on language for months,” Tobin said. “It’s an ongoing conversation about what can we do to make sure all Arizonans are treated fairly.”
The Legislature would have to approve its measure by mid-to-late July to meet the counties’ deadlines to begin printing ballots, according to the Secretary of State’s Office. Maricopa County would need the ballot language by July 24, according to Elections Director Karen Osborne.
Many lawmakers are hostile to the top-two primary. Tobin compared it to term limits, Clean Elections and the Independent Redistricting Commission as examples of people trying to manipulate elections and change their outcomes.
“Now they’re on this mission to try to turn Arizona into Louisiana,” Tobin said, referring to the open primary system that Louisiana has used since the 1970s.
The Open Government Committee submitted 365,486 signatures to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office on Thursday. The campaign has raised and spent more than $900,000 so far, and organizers have vowed to spend as much as they need to get the initiative passed in November.
A proposal that was floating around the Legislature near the end of the regular session in early May would allow all voters to cast ballots in an open primary, but would have the top vote-getter from each party advance to the general election.