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Open primary foes organizing, but money is biggest hurdle

Boxes of initiative petitions for the Open Government/Open Elections ballot initiative are turned into the Secretary of State's office July 5. (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

The Open Government Committee has had the campaign trail all to itself for the past year as it collected signatures and spread the word about the “top-two” primary election system it hopes to create in Arizona.

But opponents are coalescing against the initiative that would make massive changes to how Arizona voters elect candidates in primary elections.

Two campaigns have formed in the past several weeks to oppose the Open Elections/Open Government initiative, and both have reached out to a California-based national group that hopes to make a splash. One of the groups is also hoping to knock the initiative off the ballot with a court challenge alleging that it violates a law prohibiting ballot measures from tackling multiple issues at once.

The opposition, however, has a daunting task. The Open Government Committee has already raised and spent nearly $1 million to collect enough signatures to put the initiative on the ballot, and Chairman Paul Johnson said the committee is prepared to raise $2 million more for the campaign. Business groups, unions and other well-heeled supporters have poured money into the committee.

The Open Elections/Open Government initiative would replace partisan primary elections with a “top-two” primary in which all candidates appear on the same ballot and all voters can cast ballots. The top two vote-getters advance to the general election, regardless of party affiliation.

In every state where a top-two initiative has gone onto the ballot, the opposition has been out-raised, sometimes drastically so. Voters approved top-two primaries in California and Washington in recent years, though Oregon rejected the idea in 2008.

Tony Bradley, the chairman of Save Our Vote, an anti-top-two committee, wouldn’t say what kind of fundraising opponents will be capable of. He said the group plans to hire a fundraiser soon.

Bradley acknowledged the challenges that lay ahead, but was optimistic that Save Our Vote would be able to bring in sufficient resources.

“I know there’s a lot of people who are worried about this initiative and I think the more and more people that understand it and understand the unintended consequences that could happen from it, that we will be able to raise some money,” said Bradley, who also serves as U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar’s campaign manager. “There’s no doubt we need money to fight this initiative. They are well-funded. They’ve been running an organization for … a year. There are very heavy hitters funding this initiative.”

Bradley’s committee has some heavy hitters of its own. Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery is the public face and spokesman of Save Our Vote, and former Congressman John Shadegg will raise money for the group. The committee plans to file a lawsuit soon in a bid to keep the initiative off the November ballot.

Save Our Vote is not alone. Safeguard Arizona’s Future formed in mid-June to fight the top-two, and spokesman Mark Rogalski said the group has already received a “substantial contribution.” Rogalski said the committee has a “six-point strategy” that he is not ready to discuss, but it involves organizing with other opponents of the top-two initiative.

“We’re not going to be able to compete with the Greater Phoenix Leadership foundation and all those executives,” Rogalski said, referring to a Valley business group that has contributed about $140,000 to the Open Government Committee. “But then again, it’s not up to them to decide if this initiative gets passed or not. It’s up to the voters.”

Fundraising data from other states doesn’t bode well for Bradley’s and Rogalski’s groups. In 2010 in California, the main pro-top-two campaign spent about $5.2 million, much of it contributed by a committee run by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The main opposition group raised about $243,000.

In Washington, which originally approved a top-two primary in 2004, the pro-top-two campaign raised about $722,000, compared to just $62,000 by the opposition campaign.

The state where fundraising by the two sides was closest is also the one state where voters rejected a top-two primary. In 2008, Oregon voters rejected Measure 65 by nearly a 32-point margin. According to media reports, advocates of the top-two raised about $390,000, while opponents raised about $265,000.

Opponents of similar initiatives in other states are looking to lend a hand. Christina Tobin, who opposed California’s Proposition 14 in 2010 while running as a Libertarian candidate for secretary of state, has been in touch with members of both Arizona groups, and plans to get involved in the campaign.

Tobin runs the election and voting rights group Free & Equal, along with an organization called StopTopTwo.org. The former ballot access coordinator for Ralph Nader’s 2008 presidential campaign said top-two election systems protect incumbents, limit political diversity and allow corporate interests to unite “the two-party system under one corporate America.”

While anti-top-two forces have had problems in other states, Tobin pointed to Oregon, where she said a late infusion of money into the opposition campaign by the Oregon Education Association helped seal the initiative’s fate. Supporters of the Oregon measure blamed the loss on what they said was poorly written ballot language.

She also said she’s learned a lot from past campaigns, especially in California, where the initiative only passed by about 7 points, despite the massive fundraising disparity. Tobin believes StopTopTwo.org is poised to have an impact on the Arizona race, and pledged her support for Save Our Vote and Safeguard Arizona’s Future.

“I think uniting their efforts with what we’re doing nationally … is definitely something we would be interested in supporting, if not directly then indirectly,” Tobin said. “We know what we’re up against and we’re ready to start at a different level now.”

Tobin said stopping the Open Elections/Open Government initiative is bigger than just Arizona.

“We are trying to stop top-two from spreading across the country,” she said.

The top-two primary has no shortage of opponents in Arizona, but few appear to be in a position to contribute to the cause. The Arizona Republican Party, which is staunchly opposed to the measure, is in the midst of hard-fought campaign season, as is the Arizona Democratic Party. The Democrats haven’t taken an official position on the initiative, though spokesman Frank Camacho said a lot of members have reservations about it.

Arizona GOP spokesman Tim Sifert said the party hasn’t decided yet whether it will spend any money to oppose the Open Elections/Open Government initiative.

Republican political consultant Max Fose said fundraising for an opposition campaign may be tough because there isn’t a lot of money to go around right now. The two major parties don’t have the resources, he said, and many big-ticket contributors have already given a lot of money to other campaigns.

“I don’t know who’s going to come out against it and then have money. I’m sure a lot of people are against it, but to write a $100,000 check, you have 10 people who do that. Who’s going to do that?” Fose said.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a path to victory. Fose said he believes the opposition could raise $500,000 to $1 million. If the anti-initiative campaigns focus on base primary voters from both parties and people who are sitting on the fence, Fose said, they could defeat the top-two in November.

“To oppose a campaign, you don’t need to spend dollar for dollar. You probably need to spend half of that,” he said.

Johnson said he doesn’t know how much money the initiative’s foes will raise, but expects fierce competition from within Arizona and beyond.

“We’ve got a good portion of the Legislature opposed to us on this measure. It’s obvious to us that we’ve got a lot of lobbyists who have made their living off the system that oppose us on this. We have the two parties that oppose us on this,” Johnson said. “And then we’ve got national groups who want us to become a firewall because they’re terrified of this going into other places.”

Support for, and opposition to, ‘top 2’

The Open Elections/Open Government initiative would replace partisan primary elections with a “top-two” primary in which all candidates appear on the same ballot and all voters can cast ballots. The top two vote-getters advance to the general election, regardless of party affiliation. The initiative also establishes the same signature requirements for candidates of all parties, or no party, to qualify for the ballot.

Supporters say the initiative will elect more moderate politicians, make the electoral system fairer for independents, weaken the grip of political parties, and force candidates to appeal to all voters, not just those in their own parties’ primaries.

Opponents say the initiative would give voters fewer choices in general elections, disenfranchise third parties, undermine the party politics that many voters identify with, and encourage trickery and abuses of the system.

Here are the groups that have formed in Arizona to support or oppose the ballot initiative:

Open Government Committee
Supports the Open Elections/Open Government initiative
Chairman: Paul Johnson, former Phoenix mayor
Other key members: Former Sen. Carolyn Allen, former Rep. Bill Konopnicki, former Chairman and CEO of Pinnacle West Bill Post, former Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley, former Rep. Ted Downing and former congressional candidate Paulina Morris.

Save Our Vote
Opposes the Open Elections/Open Government initiative
Chairman: Tony Bradley, campaign manager for U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar
Other key members: Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, former U.S. Rep. John Shadegg

Safeguard Arizona’s Future
Opposes the Open Elections/Open Government initiative
Chairman: Ronald Ludders
Other key members: Mark Rogalski

StopTopTwo.org
Opposes top-two primary proposals across the U.S., including the Open Elections/Open Government initiative
Founder and CEO: Christina Tobin, head of Free & Equal Elections Foundation, former ballot access coordinator for Ralph Nader’s 2008 presidential campaign and Libertarian candidate for California secretary of state in 2010

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