The number of independents voting in the partisan primary election on Aug. 26 is expected to surge this year. And with nearly all the primary election action concentrated on the Republican side, independents are overwhelmingly choosing to vote in the GOP primary.
As a result, Republican Party leaders are concerned about independents’ potential to water down the party’s influence and lead to more moderate Republicans getting nominated.
Republican leaders are reacting by attempting to close the GOP primary system to independents in 2016 and beyond. The approach would be to allow only registered Republicans to vote in the primary or move to a caucus system in which the precinct committeemen choose the Republican nominee for office.
Maricopa County Republican Party Chair A.J. LaFaro is one of many Republicans calling for closing the primary to fend off the moderating influence of independents. He argues that closing the primary or moving to a caucus system would give Republicans the ability to hold accountable candidates who are Republicans in name only.
And the movement — motivated by fear that independents will help select candidates who are not faithful to the Republican Party platform — is gaining momentum.
“The nominating process, I think, should be reserved for those individuals who are of the party,” LaFaro said. “We’ll absolutely be looking very hard for that before the (2016) election.”
More enthusiasm among independents
Independent turnout in primaries has been abysmally low since they first were awarded the right to participate in primaries in 2000.
In 2012, when overall voter turnout in Arizona’s primary election was 28 percent, participation among independents was only 7 percent.
But this year, based on initial early ballot request numbers, independent early voter turnout in the state’s most populous county could as much as double from 2012.
In 2012, 43,000 independents in Maricopa County participated in the primary election, with half of them requesting early ballots and half showing up at polling places on Election Day. In total, almost 22,000 independents requested early ballots in the primary.
Already this year, more than 50,000 independents in the county have requested early primary election ballots.
Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell said because independent early voters have to request a ballot — whereas Republican and Democratic permanent early voters are sent primary ballots automatically — independents are more likely to return their early ballots.
Her office expects between 80 and 90 percent of those 50,000 independents to return their early ballots. That translates to at least 40,000 independents voting early in the primary election — nearly double the number that voted early in the 2012 primary.
And the number is still increasing, as voters have until Aug. 15 to request an early ballot. After that, independents can still vote at the polls on Election Day.
Voter education in action
Much of the expected increase is due to voter education efforts by county recorders, the media and the Arizona Citizens Clean Election Commission to fight the widespread impression that independents cannot vote in the primary.
Tom Collins, executive director of the commission, said the belief that independents can’t vote in primaries is one of the most common misconceptions in Arizona politics.
Last year, the commission held two focus groups in which they asked voters if independents can vote in primaries.
“What we found was basically mass confusion and the vast majority of people indicating that independents couldn’t vote in the primary, though they differed on the reasons why,” he said.
The commission has a $1.7 million voter education budget this year. About half of that went to TV commercials educating independents that they can vote in the primary and commercials explaining how to properly return an early ballot.
County recorders have also identified the misconception and are attacking it in a variety of ways. In Maricopa County, independent voters on the Permanent Early Voting List received an additional notice this year asking them to select a ballot.
Those efforts have alerted more independent voters that they have a voice in the primary election on whichever side they choose.
Pulling a GOP ballot
Republicans have a choice between six gubernatorial hopefuls in the primary. Every statewide office except mine inspector has a contested GOP primary, and all three of Arizona’s competitive congressional districts have multiple Republicans to choose from.
Democrats, on the other hand, have almost no options in the primary.
Superintendent of public instruction is the only statewide office where Democrats have a contested primary. None of the three competitive congressional districts have Democratic primaries. The only hotly contested Democratic primary in the state, aside from a few legislative districts, is the race in Arizona’s heavily Democratic 7th Congressional District.
With such a lopsided field, it’s no surprise independents are overwhelmingly asking for primary ballots on the GOP side.
In Maricopa County, of the 50,000 independents who have requested early ballots so far, 60 percent of them have requested GOP ballots, while only 26 percent have requested Democratic ballots. The other 14 percent have requested ballots for third-parties or strictly for nonpartisan town or city elections.
Diluting the party
Republican Party leaders argue the increase in independents voting in the Republican primary could lead to the party nominating candidates who don’t hold true to the party platform.
“(Independents) can dilute the Republican platform, the Republican values. Those individuals who are independent voters, if they had strong conservative values, then they would be a Republican,” LaFaro said
He said the party nominating process should be for members of the party — those who actually subscribe to the GOP ideals, instead of unaffiliated voters who just decide to pull a Republican ballot because that is where the action is.
Still, he takes a somewhat nuanced view of independents voting in the GOP primary. While he says anyone who has true conservative principles should be welcomed into the party, he said that’s not always the case with independents who request GOP primary ballots.
He worries that allowing independents a voice in the Republican primary could lead to Mississippi-style campaign shenanigans where establishment Republicans encourage Democrats to re-register as independents to vote for them against Tea Party challengers in the GOP primary.
Thad Cochran, the senior U.S. senator from Mississippi, courted black Democrats to back him in the GOP primary runoff election earlier this year, and was able to use the strategy to successfully beat back a Tea Party challenger.
The primary election system in Arizona is not the same as Mississippi, but the dynamics are similar enough that LaFaro has concerns a similar strategy could be used to elect a moderate over a more conservative Republican in the primary.
The secret sauce
Conventional wisdom is that independents favor moderates of either political party.
And while that’s true to a point, it’s more complicated than that, said Jackie Salit, author of the book “Independents Rising” and president of independentvoting.org, an organization dedicated to empowering independent voters.
Salit said independents have a variety of political ideologies and political leanings, but one common thread is they are tired of party ideology, and think the parties have too much of a stranglehold on the democratic process.
“They span the political spectrum in ideological terms, but they have a very strong common thread that runs across the board in independents. They don’t like partisanship. They don’t like the extent to which political parties require ideological conformity,” she said.
In other words, they like a candidate with an independent streak.
Former Mesa Mayor Scott Smith, who has been deemed the “moderate Republican” in the six-way GOP gubernatorial primary, said he expects independents to support his candidacy disproportionately. Gaining their votes is part of his strategy for success in the primary.
“It’s part of our secret sauce,” he said.
Voting with malice
In January, the Maricopa County Republican Committee voted overwhelmingly in favor of a resolution to “encourage our party’s leadership to immediately take all actions needed to close our primary.”
The resolution stated that Arizona’s semi-open primary process allows “those who do not subscribe to the principles of this party to vote in our primary elections” and allows independents to choose a GOP nominee who is not a “true” Republican.
The statement alleged that independents do this with malice.
“Non-Republicans (vote in the primary) to hurt the nomination choice of the registered party candidate to run in the general election,” the resolution states.
Also in January, the Republican state committee overwhelmingly supported a resolution urging the party to move toward a caucus system in which the precinct committeemen to select the GOP nominees for partisan offices.
Drawing on the First Amendment right of free association, the resolution states that “Republicans should nominate Republican candidates without the threat of outside interference.”
The committeemen called on GOP lawmakers to refer to the ballot an amendment to the Arizona Constitution to allow parties to nominate candidates by caucus, and urged county parities to adopt similar resolutions.
But independents say that any attempt to close the primary or move to a caucus system could backfire on the Republican Party.
Salit said independents and rank-and-file Republicans favor keeping the primary elections open and encouraging more participation from independent voters in the GOP primary. Otherwise, as the number of independents continues to grow, the GOP nominees will be chosen by a smaller and smaller group of party-insiders, and will not reflect the electorate, she said.
But the open primary process doesn’t produce the results the “party machine” wants.
“The party organization is sometimes fearful of that and hardens their positions and tries to pull in the other direction,” Salit said. “And in my opinion, they do that at a great risk because it is such an obviously anti-democratic position.”
Political consultant Barrett Marson, a registered independent who works for mostly Republican clients, said having an open primary helps the GOP select candidates who are better prepared to win the general election.
He notes that independents are now the largest political group in Arizona, and excluding them in the GOP primary would reduce the party’s ability to fire them up in the general election, when Republican candidates will need independent votes to win.
“It’s healthy to have independents in the primary because at end of the day you have to woo independents to win a general election,” he said.
Closing the primary – easier said than done
There are two schools of thought as to what it would take for the Republicans to close their primaries or move to a caucus system to nominate candidates for political office.
The Arizona Constitution is clear on the matter: The Legislature must enact a direct primary election law, and everyone can vote in a primary election.
The first part of that requirement dates back to statehood, while the section allowing independents and others to vote in the primary election was enshrined in the state Constitution in 1998.
If the Republican Party wants to close ranks in the primary election, there are two ways to do so, according to Lee Miller, legal counsel for the state GOP.
“Option one is we go to the ballot and change the Constitution to allow the party to opt out of primaries,” he said.
But that would require support of the voters, and with independents making up the largest group of voters in the state, it’s unlikely they would vote to exclude themselves from voting in a partisan primary.
Option two hinges on a federal court decision from 2007 that allowed the Arizona Libertarian Party to close its primary elections to non-members.
Elections Attorney Kory Langhofer of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck said that because the ruling allowed Libertarians to opt out of the semi-open primary system, it in essence invalidated that section of the Constitution requiring parties to allow independents to vote in their primaries. Langhofer said the GOP could choose to close their primaries unilaterally, and although they would likely be sued, he thinks they could win based on that ruling.
Langhofer also said the party could likely make a legal case for the caucus system by arguing the system would fall within the confines of what the Constitution’s drafters meant by “direct primary election law” as long as it was open to party rank-and-file.
But attorney Dave Hardy, who argued the case on behalf of the Libertarian Party, said the ruling was narrowly tailored to Libertarians, and wouldn’t necessarily hold water for Republicans.
“Whether it applies to larger parties is hard to predict. The same legal arguments would be there — a threat to freedom to associate via the state commanding the part to allow outsiders to vote in its internal elections,” Hardy said in an email.
This year lawmakers attempted to change state law to allow a political party to select the candidates to appear on the primary election ballot by a political party caucus. That bill, however, hit a snag in the Rules Committee, because of concerns it would violate the Constitution.
— Hank Stephenson