Proposed amendment would overhaul Arizona election procedures - East Valley Tribune: Politics

Proposed amendment would overhaul Arizona election procedures

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Posted: Wednesday, August 3, 2011 6:40 pm | Updated: 10:22 pm, Wed Aug 3, 2011.

A bipartisan group of politicians and others hope to convince Arizona voters to revamp the state's election procedures in a way they contend will deny public office to radicals on both ends of the political spectrum.

A proposed constitutional amendment unveiled Wednesday seeks to scrap the current system where members of each party get to choose their nominees for statewide, legislative, local and congressional offices, with the survivors facing off in the general election. Instead, voters of all parties -- and those who are unaffiliated -- would choose from all the candidates, with the top two vote-getters then having a runoff in November, regardless of their party designation.

That could result in a general election between two Republicans, two Democrats, one of each or any possible combination.

Backers will have until July 5 to gather the 259,213 valid signatures on petitions to put the issue on the 2012 ballot.

Republican Carolyn Allen, who represented Scottsdale in the Legislature for 16 years before retiring last year, said the current system requires candidates to appeal in the primary to the fringes voters of each party, the activists who tend to go to the polls for partisan events.

That leaves voters, including the one third of Arizonans who are independents, to have to choose between the extremes. At the same time, most of the legislative districts are not politically competitive, with one party or the other having a dominant majority of registered voters.

The result is that the majority party's primary effectively becomes the only election that matters.

"The state of Arizona is not well-served by such hard right and hard left politicians,'' Allen said.

Former Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson, who ran unsuccessfully for governor as a Democrat in 1998, echoed the sentiment.

"If you look at both Arizona politics and national politics, it is becoming more polarized,'' he said. Johnson said that is inevitable, given who turns out now for the partisan primaries.

"You end up with 2 to 4 percent of the electorate showing up that tends to be a much more distilled, partisan point of view,'' Johnson said. And he said that situation is getting even worse as people disgusted with the parties choose to reregister as independents, leaving the more hard-core in tighter control.

Johnson said that goes beyond who is getting elected. He said that politicians who are beholden to one party or the other find themselves unable to work "across the aisle'' with members of the other party.

Allen said much of the debate that played out in Washington over the federal debt limit proved that point.

Under the plan, candidates could still identify themselves on the ballot as members of a particular party if they wanted. And the parties could still endorse and financially support who they wanted.

But that would be legally irrelevant to the final outcome of the primary, as the only thing which would advance someone to the general election would be coming out in the top two.

There is precedent for what is being proposed.

On the most basic level, most city elections already are run this way, though candidates do not run with party affiliations. Only Tucson still has partisan primaries, a system that would be scrapped if this measure is approved.

The plan also is modeled after what voters approved in Washington and, more recently, in California. Attorney Karen Schroeder said the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Washington law.

Technically speaking, Arizona already gives independents a voice of sorts in who gets nominated.

A 1998 voter-approved measure says independents can participate in the primaries of any party by going to the polls and requesting that party's ballot. Their choices, though, are limited to the candidates of that particular party.

Johnson said, though, that candidates spend their time and money sending mailers and making phone calls only to registered party members. The result, he said, is most independents are unaware of their rights.

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