A top elected Republican will be leading the effort to convince voters to keep the partisan in partisan politics.
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery told Capitol Media Services Tuesday the initiative drive for an open primary system will not meet its stated goals of increasing voter participation and electing candidates who are not at either extreme. In fact, he said, experiences elsewhere suggest the reverse would be true.
The formation of the Save Our Vote Committee comes on the heels of the failure of Gov. Jan Brewer and legislative Republicans to dull the move -- and possibly confuse voters -- with a competing measure of their own. But that plan fell apart when some GOP senators refused to go along.
That leaves the initiative on the ballot on its own. And while it isn't official yet -- the signatures submitted have to be verified -- backers turned in about 100,000 more than necessary to qualify.
Montgomery said he can't say where the group will get the money for its campaign, saying that is being handled by others. There was no immediate response to messages to the organization's treasurer.
But he speculated that his own Republican Party will be interested in preserving the current system, as will the other organized parties.
So far, though, the opposition is all Republican: Montgomery said the other person involved in marshalling opposition to the initiative is former GOP Congressman John Shadegg.
But Montgomery and foes are not relying on public relations to kill the initiative. He said foes of the plan are weighing a legal challenge to have the issue kicked off the ballot.
Under the current system, each party chooses its own nominee in a primary.
Former Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson, leading the initiative drive, said the problem is that candidates appeal to the small minority of partisans who actually come out to vote. But he said the primary becomes the de facto general election in legislative and congressional districts where one party or the other holds a voter registration edge.
The net effect, said Johnson, is the entire district is stuck with a highly partisan -- and often extreme -- candidate selected by just a few.
Montgomery said the initiative will result in "pretty much the same thing.''
He cites the recent election in Egypt, where all candidates for president from all parties faced off in a primary, with the top two surviving for the general election.
"You had two extremist candidates, one from the Muslim Brotherhood and one who represents the last dictator's regime get through because you had a bunch of, quote/unquote, moderate candidate in the middle that carved up that vote,'' Montgomery said. "So that didn't really work.''
Closer to home, he cited the 1991 open primary for governor in Louisiana which resulted in the matchup between Edwin Edwards and David Duke.
"You had a crook and the Klan,'' Montgomery said, citing Edwards' subsequent conviction on racketeering charges and the fact that Duke had been a former Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
Johnson said open primaries do result in the election of more moderate candidates, pointing to last year's recall election where Jerry Lewis beat fellow Republican Russell Pearce.
Montgomery, however, pointed out how that election was nearly hijacked by what was perceived as the sham candidacy of Olivia Cortes, encouraged to run by Pearce supporters to split the anti-Pearce vote. Cortes eventually withdrew
He also noted that Arizona law already allows political independents, who outnumber Democrats in Arizona, to vote in the primary of either major party. But Montgomery said the experience has been that they have not turned out.
"One of the things I see this initiative trying to do is overcome the fact that some people just choose not to exercise their right to vote,'' he said. "You can't force people to exercise a right that they have the ability and the right to choose not to.''
Montgomery said there's one other drawback to the plan: Cost.
He said that this year, as he campaigns for reelection, he needs to get his message out in the primary to the slightly more than 700,000 registered Republicans in Maricopa County. This measure, if approved, would require all candidates to go after all of the more than 1.8 million registered voters in the county.
The potential legal challenge arises because the Arizona Constitution requires that all proposed amendments be limited to a single subject. Montgomery charges that this measure violates that because it affects everything from how candidates qualify for the ballot to how they qualify for optional public financing.
Johnson said Montgomery is off base, saying the proposal has been vetted by attorneys.
Montgomery also said he was no fan of the alternative being cooked up by the governor and legislative leaders.
It would have kept the open primary plan but simply added the requirement for all candidates to list their party registration. The plan to have the Legislature put that on the ballot as a competing measure never gathered enough votes.