Arizona Democrats today rejected a proposal from Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes to open the party’s presidential preference election to independent voters.
The idea was always considered a long shot, and even if the party had embraced it, it faces major hurdles.
A fiery debate at the party’s state committee meeting pitted party loyalists worried about legal expenses against younger activists, who argued that opening the primary election lives up to the party ideal of expanding voting rights.
“We’ve done nothing as a nation but expand the right for people to vote,” Fontes said. “This is not just what we believe as a party. This is what we believe as a people.”
Arizona voters who are not registered members of major political parties can vote in either Republican or Democratic primaries for local, state and federal races – but not the quadrennial presidential preference election.
That creates unnecessary confusion for independent voters every four years, Fontes said.
“What this resolution does is say [there’s] one simple set of rules for all elections,” he said.
The party’s resolutions committee unanimously voted to reject the proposal, citing the potential cost of litigation over opening its primary. The full state committee followed suit later with 285-177 vote.
State law prohibits open presidential primaries, so younger activists seeking the change have two routes – persuade the Arizona Legislature to make the chance or get the Arizona Democratic Party to sue Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat who has said she generally supports allowing independents to participate in presidential primaries.
Gov. Doug Ducey this week reiterated his support for opening presidential preference elections to independent voters – something he emphasized following the debacle of the 2016 primaries, in which people waited for hours to vote and independents were told – correctly – that they couldn’t participate.
“I stand by the comments,” he said Wednesday. “I would like to see more voter participation.”
If the Democratic Party had decided to open its primaries and force a lawsuit, it would likely cost between $50,000 and $115,000, Arizona Democratic Party Chairwoman Felecia Rotellini said.
“The issue here is there is a proper way other than having the Arizona Democratic Party, who you will hear is way under budget, suing the state and using money we could be using elsewhere,” she said.
The party has about $640,000 in available cash, treasurer Rick McGuire said.
Legislation that Sen. Martín Quezada, D-Glendale, sponsored in 2017, 2018 and 2019 to open presidential primaries went nowhere. Quezada said Saturday he will introduce the proposal in 2020.
Changing the law before the March 17 primary would require an emergency clause and the support of two-thirds of legislators in the Arizona House and Senate.
Fontes said he doesn’t plan to actively lobby the Legislature to change the law, unless the other members of the Arizona Association of County Recorders do so.
After the idea’s defeat, Fontes said his focus now shifts to educating voters, particularly independent voters, about the presidential preference election, a campaign the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors recently allocated about $500,000 for.
“The backup plan is a robust education campaign for voters so we can avoid the misinformation from the 2016 election,” he said.
CJ Briggle, acting chair of the party’s resolution committee, argued that any changes should happen at the Legislature. And she said she expects both independents and Republicans to vote in the Democratic primary because Arizona Republicans cancelled their primary, presumably by getting those voters to change their party registration.
“We’re not excluding independents,” Briggle said. “We’re asking them to choose a party.”
Arizona is one of 17 states with a closed Democratic presidential primary or caucus. Five of those states — Nevada, Maine, Wyoming, Connecticut and Maryland — allow voters to change their registration on Election Day. In Arizona, non-affiliated voters who want to vote would have to re-register as Democrats by Feb. 18, 2020, a full 30 days before the March 17 primary.
Thirty other states have opened up their presidential primary to independent voters.
Pima County Democrat Andrew Gardner said learning that more than 30 states already allow independents to vote in their presidential primaries persuaded him that the idea makes sense.
“I don’t think being a Democrat for a month is that bad, but if people think it is, maybe we should change things,” Gardner said.
Lupe Conchas, the party’s affirmative action moderator, said opening the presidential preference election to independents will help Democrats get their votes in crucial local and legislative races.
“We need those independents to vote, and voting is a pattern,” Conchas said. “If you’re telling me that we don’t need them in this election but we need them in the next two, what are you telling me?”