The August 2 statewide primary is less than three months away. Active voter registration numbers via the Arizona Secretary of State show that in 12 of Arizona’s 15 counties “OTHER” is among the top two voter registrants— beating out the partisan alternatives.
Yet, in four legislative districts where “IND & Other” lead voter registration, not a single district boasts a candidate who mirrors that party affiliation. In fact, only in two legislative and one Congressional district did a candidate outside of the two-party system survive signature qualifications.
Elections are not set on an even playing field
Why such dismal participation from independents? The system is built to discourage them.
Our current partisan primary system, paid for by ALL taxpayers, excludes certain candidates and creates massive barriers to participation for voters not affiliated with a political party. Independent and unaffiliated candidates must gather up to six times as many signatures just to appear on the general election ballot.
Independent voters can vote in Arizona’s partisan primaries if they choose a partisan ballot. To our independent and unaffiliated friends: counties will notify you by mail to select a partisan ballot. If a response is not received by July 6, you can contact your county recorder to ask for a partisan ballot by July 22. Alternatively, you can select a ballot and vote at an early voting location or in-person on Election Day.
The great news is that County Recorders like Stephen Richer are reporting higher than usual ballot requests from independents. The bad news is that it’s likely only about 10 percent of unaffiliated voters will choose a partisan ballot. Ultimately, they will be far outweighed by their partisan counterparts, who will be sent a ballot without even having to lift a finger. It’s no wonder why they under-participate.
But until the system changes (we’ll get to that), everyone can and should vote in our primary elections.
The truth is that there aren’t that many competitive elections
Certainly, we will have competitive U.S. Senate and governor’s races this November. However, the Arizona State Legislature arguably is where the laws that have the biggest impact on our daily lives are considered.
After the once-a-decade redistricting that occurred last year, Arizona voters and candidates find themselves in new districts. Of the 30 districts, only four are considered “highly competitive” and one is considered competitive. That means more than 80 percent of all legislative races are determined in the primary (where only 36.4 percent of registered voters participated in 2020).
Candidates for nine of 30 state Senate seats — nearly one-third “have no primary or general election opponent.” Thanks to safe districts and uncontested primaries (assuming no one runs against them as a write in candidate) these candidates will win – regardless of what most district voters think.
Our current primaries amplify our ideological extremes
Partisan primary elections become a problem when primary voters (remember that’s only 36.4 percent of registered voters) are responsible for choosing who wins the general election by default.
We should be encouraging candidates to talk to all voters with a focus on the issues – not just a small portion of their party. Until our system encourages broader voter turnout and equal treatment of candidates, it will continue to support tiny minorities of voters deciding the outcome of elections.
A path towards an election system that better represents ALL Arizonans
Ask yourself, “Could Arizona’s electoral system better represent voters and their values?” Other states have begun to implement reforms to address the problem of primary elections that don’t reflect the broader public interest.
Our coalition will be watching closely to see how proposed solutions like Alaska’s ranked choice voting pan out. Washington and California reformed their election systems and adopted a top-two primary election process, that’s resulted in legislatures less driven by the ideological extremes.
What will work for Arizona?
At a time when many Americans are concerned about the health of our election system, our coalition formed to provide information about how Arizona’s voting system currently operates and to study alternative nonpartisan primary structures that could make our government more efficient, fairer, less divisive, and more responsive to the needs of ALL Arizona voters.
If you’d like to be part of identifying a solution, please visit our site to get involved.
Sarah Brown Smallhouse is president of the Thomas R Brown Foundations. Don Budinger is chairman of Rodel Foundation of Arizona. Ted Hinderaker is a founding member of the Hinderaker, Rauh and Weisman law firm. Si Schorr was the former chair of the Arizona State Transportation Board.