Can a ‘Top Two’ primary moderate Arizona politics?

That’s the message we’re hearing from the Open Government initiative supporters.

These folks believe Independents will have greater opportunities to win elections while extremists, those leading by ideology instead of policy, will be forced to moderate in order to appeal to the general population versus their party’s base.

In a ‘top two’ primary, everyone, regardless of party affiliation, receives the same ballot and the top two vote getters advance to the general election. This could result in two Republicans competing in a general election or one Democrat and one Independent and so forth.

While the concept sounds great, I’ve been hesitant to support it. Remember, term limits sounded great too. As did Clean Elections.

But term limits forced good politicians; those with a real grasp of public policy, out of office and contributed to the loss of institutional memory.

Clean Elections is something I still support but because the Supreme Court essentially gutted the law, Clean Elections doesn’t have the teeth to make much of a difference anymore.

So I’ve waffled on the initiative, not sure which way I’d vote. But this week I’ve had to ask why, if this isn’t a good proposal, are extremist politicians lined up in opposition to it?

First, Governor Brewer considered calling a special election to reword the initiative in hopes of confusing voters and having both initiatives go down in flames. But many in her party didn’t want to simply confuse voters, they wanted something to ensure that the heart of a top-two system never took hold and political parties could maintain their control.

Then, Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery became the face and prominent supporter of the opposition, Save Our Vote Committee. Montgomery, famous for his undying support of Joe Arpaio and his “Put up or shut up” comment to the Department of Justice, vows defeat of the initiative, and if it isn’t defeated, says he’ll take it to court to kill it.

That begs the question, “Why?” What are Montgomery and Brewer and other Tea Party politicians so afraid of?

Right now, neither party has come out in support of Open Government, which actually gives the initiative credibility. If the parties feel a top-two primary will give more power to independents and moderates and therefore encourage more voter participation, I say go for it.

Are there potential downsides to the initiative? Yes.

Some have said this will force the parties to decide which candidate or candidates they will support in advance of a primary. But let’s be realistic, this already happens. The party cannot tell a candidate not to run, but the party can and does try to persuade candidates to reconsider.

Some critics of the initiative have said they believe parties will put up sham candidates to dilute the vote and ensure the real candidate wins. Again, this already happens. Remember Olivia Cortes?

The fact is the Open Government initiative is not and cannot be a panacea. So long as money plays a deciding factor in elections and so long as Citizens United is upheld, nothing will dramatically change the face of politics as we know it. But if a top-two primary succeeds in encouraging more independents and moderates to vote in elections, why wouldn’t we want to switch to this system?

Taking away partisan primaries eliminates the need for candidates to cater to one set of beliefs in the primary and a different set of beliefs in a general election. No, Open Government will not force politicians to put policy before ideology, but it does make it more difficult for politicians to win on ideology alone.

Our current primary system presents an unfair burden to Independents, a third of Arizona’s registered voters. A top-two system will help level the playing field and give more voters an opportunity to vote for candidates representative of their beliefs. And in the end, isn’t that what we want in a democracy?



  1. Arizona Eagletarian

    Experience — yes, this is not a new concept — demonstrates that there are very real ways for opportunists to exploit the weaknesses of this system. The fact is, critics point to the possibility of running sham candidates because experience has shown that can, does and will work. Olivia Cortes was outed because all eyes were focused on the recall last fall. When there are 30 legislative districts in play, it will be MUCH easier to run a half dozen sham candidates in one district to get Arizona’s version of Orly Taitz to get one of the top two spots. And make no mistake, Arizona does have candidates at least as kooky as that birther queen.

    No, Top Two will NOT prevent Carl Seel or Al Melvin or Frank Antenori from getting elected. With people like Constantin Querard organizing tea party candidate campaigns, we will certainly get MORE just like them.

  2. mike slater

    Julie, many voters, mostly Democrats, are easily confused.

    BTW, I’ve been an Independent for 10 years and always vote for the most conservative candidate on the ballot.

  3. Ken St. John

    Because of the 2-party polarization, many district races are completely decided in the primary. This means the minority party in that district has absolutely no say in who represents them. I think this initiative would resolve that. The dominant party’s top two candidates would win the primary and then all the voters would get to choose between them. Like in the Pearce recall.
    In the mean time, I register Independent and opt to vote in the republican primary since I live in a predominantly republican East Valley district. As I recall, this gave me the opportunity to vote against Andrew Thomas in his primary bid last election cycle. I’m hopeful I can help keep the extremists (kooks) out of office.

  4. David Lucier

    I agree, Julie. The Open Government initiative is neither a panacea nor a magic pill to cure our electoral process ills.

    One thing I believe it does point out is the overwhelming feeling of the electorate for change…positive change as opposed to crazy change.

    State wide polls suggest the vast majority of people in Arizona don’t like the legislature, the way the candidates are chosen, or the results of their work product. There is a huge disconnect.

    So, doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different outcome is a pretty silly proposition. Something has to change. The question after “what” is “how”?

  5. Tom Milton


    I know you posted this awhile ago, but I thought I would add a little to your analysis.

    Many of the arguments against Open Elections/Open Government you correctly identify as being abuses that can occur in our current system. You mentioned Olivia Cortes, probably the highest profile recent “sham” candidate. Many people didn’t hear about the 11 Green Party candidates that the Green Party sued to have removed from the ballot in 2010. They were not really Green Party members. They were trying to help Republican candidates by splitting votes from Democrats in contested General Election races.

    Where term limits and clean elections are past reforms that this initiative is often compared to, there is a difference. Those reforms focused on the candidates (how long they could serve and how they were funded). Our initiative is about the voters. Past reforms that dealt more directly with the voters have been so popular that we no longer see them as reforms. Women voting, the voting age being 18 (not 21), and voting by mail, are all past reforms that opened up our election process to better engage the electorate.

    We agree that Open Elections/Open Government will not fix all of our problems. We do believe it is a step in the right direction.

    Regarding the turnout issue, our opponents like to point to the dismal turnout in California’s first Open Primary. After the large turnouts in 2008 to help decided the Democratic nomination for President between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and in 2010 to decide the California Governor’s primary races to fill an open seat, there were no similar statewide issues on California’s primary ballot in 2012. Lower turnout was more about ballot issues as opposed to an Open Primary.

    It will increase turnout in Arizona if for no other reason because of our Permanent Early Voting List. Right now Republicans and Democrats have primary ballots mailed directly to them if they are on the PEVL. Independents are sent a postcard asking them which ballot they want. Very few respond and no ballot is sent to them in the primary. With Open Elections/Open Government, ALL voters on the PEVL will have a primary ballot mailed to them.

    Thank you,
    Tom Milton
    Campaign Manager
    Open Elections/Open Government

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