/ Modified sep 21, 2012 6:43 p.m.

AZ Week: Open Primary Proposition Forum

Pro: 'Dissatisfaction with existing system'; Con: 'Subverts democracy'


Arizona voters would turn the state's electoral system upside down this fall if they approve an open primary in which all could vote and the top two, regardless of party, would compete in the general election.

Would such a system improve or degrade the existing process? Arizona Week asked two key protagonists to discuss Proposition 121 for Friday's broadcast.

Paul Johnson, a former Phoenix mayor and chairman of the Open Government Committee, which is pushing the proposition, and Clint Bolick, vice president of litigation for the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix, faced off.

"You don't have to run a poll to understand that there is a huge amount of dissatisfaction with the public in terms of how the existing partisan system works," Johnson said. "There's a real sense that today at the partisan level people are really more concerned about the red team, the blue team, what party they're in, than the issues that affect both our country as well as our state."

"It takes a bad system and makes it much, much worse," Bolick said. "What Mr. Johnson doesn't talk about is that a result of this system is you only get a choice of two candidates in November. ... You'll get a choice between two Democrats or two Republicans. That's not a choice at all. This initiative subverts democracy, and that's why we're against Proposition 121."

Johnson said the open primary system would be better for independents, who at 33 percent make up a growing and considerable proportion of the state's voters. Republicans are at 36 percent, Democrats at 31 percent.

Bolick said the system would wipe out minor parties, making it all but impossible for any of their candidates to make the general election ballot.

Johnson said he and others backing the proposition hope to minimize political control in Arizona at the extremes of the two major parties by pushing candidates to compete for support from all voters, thus moderating their positions.

"I'm not against extremes having a voice," he said. "I just think their voice ought to be proportional to their numbers."

Bolick said one of his objections is that the proposition is an attempt to manipulate the system to produce moderation.

"This is one of the rare initiatives where the framers of the initiative are admitting that they are doing this because they want to induce a particular political outcome," he said. "That is very contrary to notions of American democracy, where we let the chips fall where they may ... "

An academic researcher who has analyzed Proposition 121 agreed with Bolick's point that the proposal is designed to drive to a specific outcome.

"The idea is that we just have too idealogically extreme people in office, frankly, and that we can get the more moderate candidates by forcing a top-two system," said David Berman, senior research fellow for Arizona State University's Morrison Institute for Public Policy.

Berman said he thinks the system would have a "modest" impact, driving moderation in 10 percent to 20 percent of the state's races.

He wrote "Top-Two Proposition: What Nonpartisan Elections Could Mean for Arizona" for the Morrison Institute.

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