A planned special session to modify an initiative to create a “top-two” primary election system in Arizona won’t happen after some senators pulled their support because they didn’t think Gov. Jan Brewer’s proposal went far enough.
While the governor only wanted a ballot referral that would amend the initiative by requiring candidates under the top-two primary system to list their party affiliation on the ballot ,Brewer spokesman Matthew Benson said some Republican senators wanted to go much further by passing an alternative ballot measure to compete with the Open Elections/Open Government initiative.
Brewer was willing to call a special session to address one of the most “urgent shortcomings” of the initiative at the request of Senate President Steve Pierce and House Speaker Andy Tobin, Benson said.
Benson laid the blame for the aborted special session squarely at Pierce’s feet. Both legislative leaders said they had enough support to pass the proposed ballot measure in special session, Benson said, but the proposal “fell apart in the Senate” after a contingent of senators that was unhappy with the limited scope of the planned session pushed for a more comprehensive alternative.
“We saw a 180-degree shift on that point, at least in the Senate,” Benson said. “For whatever reason, the Senate president and leadership had a change of heart.
“So, we decided to pull the plug.”
Pierce said he simply didn’t have the votes, and said he was unaware of a lack of support in the Senate due to the narrow scope of Brewer‘s proposal.
“That’s fine. It’s my fault. I’m a big boy,” he said
Some of his members, especially those in tough races this year, were hesitant to take on the issue on such short notice, Pierce said. The Prescott Republican said they hadn’t yet seen any proposed ballot language and hadn’t seen any research or polling on the issue.
“There’s a lot to consider. Some of my members were cautious about it. Some of them are in very contested races, and they just said it would be damaging to their race,” Pierce said. “The speaker said he had the votes and he could do it. I said I could get 16 there. I didn’t know if I could get them to vote for it.”
Benson also said some senators were also either on vacation, out of town, or unwilling to leave the campaign trail to return to the Capitol. There are 21 Republicans in the Senate.
As Brewer, Pierce and Tobin began to lay down the groundwork on Friday for a special session early next week, some lawmakers groused about Brewer’s unwillingness to refer a measure to the ballot that would compete with, and possibly overtake, the Open Elections/Open Government initiative. Republican lawmakers started floating alternative proposals around the end of the regular session in late April and early May.
Pierce said the issue should have been resolved months ago, and said he may be partly to blame for the fact that it wasn’t.
“There were people wanting it before we even (ended the regular session in May). And then when everybody got out, everybody went home and was going, ‘Yeah, we’ve got to get in campaign mode.’ And I think everybody just kind of overlooked it,” Pierce said. “Why it didn’t happen sooner, I don’t know. It should’ve been. Probably I’m part of the reason. We should’ve remembered and talked about it sooner.”
Backers of the top-two initiative, who submitted about 365,000 signatures to the Secretary of State’s Office on Thursday, accused Brewer and legislative leadership of trying to confuse voters and sabotage the initiative by referring a counterproposal to the ballot.
House Democratic leaders also accused the Republicans of trying to undermine the wishes of those who signed the initiative petitions by placing an item on the ballot in order to confuse the issue.
“The governor wasn’t interested in pursuing something that was going to be perceived as thwarting the will of the voters,” Benson said.
Pierce said he didn’t know if Brewer’s unwillingness to go further contributed to a lack of support in the Senate.
“I don’ know that for a fact. Perhaps they know something I don’t know,” he said.
The Open Elections/Open Government initiative would eliminate partisan primaries and create a system where all candidates run on one ballot together in the primary, with the top two candidates advancing to the general election, regardless of party affiliation. Supporters say it will elect more moderate candidates and be more representative of voters’ wishes, while opponents say it will undermine traditional partisan system that voters identify with and predict it will be rife with fraud and abuse.
Benson said the most unfortunate thing about the cancellation of the special session is that the top-two initiative passes, candidates will be able to deceive voters by withholding their party affiliation.
“The Legislature should answer for that,” he said.
Benson said some lawmakers may blame the cancellation of the special session on Brewer’s hesitance to go further. But if legislative critics think the governor’s proposal had shortcomings, he said, they should take action themselves.
“They ought to just call themselves into session and go ahead and put their money where their mouth is,” he said.