Jul 19, 2023 - Politics

Open primaries proposal won't require ranked choice voting, but opens the door

Illustration of gold, silver and bronze check marks.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Ranked choice voting (RCV) could still come to Arizona, but a ballot measure to overhaul primary elections won't explicitly mandate it.

State of play: A campaign planning a ballot measure to create "open primaries" previously considered including RCV as part of its citizen initiative.

  • But Save Democracy Arizona decided against mandating RCV in its pending ballot proposition, as first reported by Capitol Media Services. Chuck Coughlin, a campaign consultant for the group, tells Axios Phoenix that support wasn't strong enough for the group to invest.
  • "There is great disregard for our current system and how it treats voters," says Coughlin, who argues that our partisan primary system doesn't treat voters and candidates equally. "But there is a variety of opinions on how to remedy that."

Yes, but: That doesn't mean the group's ballot measure won't pave the way for RCV.

Details: The language isn't finalized yet, but Save Democracy Arizona plans to refer to the 2024 ballot a constitutional amendment that would ban taxpayer funding for partisan primary elections, Coughlin says.

  • The Legislature and governor would be required to choose a new system by November 2025, and if they couldn't agree on one, the choice would be left to the secretary of state.
  • They would have the option of having anywhere from two to five candidates, regardless of party affiliation, advance from the nonpartisan, open primary to the general election.
  • In any system where over two candidates emerge from primary, ranking would be required in the general.

Zoom in: The proposal would also eliminate Arizona's presidential preference election and would permit only presidential primaries that were nonpartisan.

  • Precinct committeemen — who are the elected voting members of political parties' legislative, district-level organizations — would no longer be elected.

Context: Under RCV, people cast votes not only for their first-choice candidate, but others in order of preference.

  • If no one gets a majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and their supporters' second-choice votes are given to the remaining candidates.
  • That process continues until someone has over 50%.

Between the lines: ASU's Center for an Independent and Sustainable Democracy released a survey of 1,063 respondents, showing strong support for a nonpartisan primary in which all candidates appear on one ballot, and more measured support for RCV.

  • 80% said they support nonpartisan primaries and nearly 17% were opposed.
  • 52% said they supported RCV and nearly 44% opposed it.

The intrigue: GOP lawmakers referred a measure to the 2024 ballot that would enshrine the current partisan primary system in the state constitution.

  • If the competing ballot measures both pass, the one that gets more votes will become part of the state constitution.

The other side: Rep. Austin Smith, R-Wittmann, who sponsored the measure to protect partisan primaries, defended the existing system, telling us: "The parties serve as a vehicle for ideas."

  • He also said "jungle primaries" — as open primaries are sometimes known — and RCV have flaws, including the longer and more complicated tabulation process for ranked systems.
  • Arizona GOP chair Jeff DeWit noted independents can already vote in primaries, and he predicted both parties will oppose "awkward changes that do nothing more than create more confusion in an already flawed process."
  • Democratic political consultant Joe Wolf said there's no reason to change the current system to benefit people who can't win under partisan primaries, and he said he believes people are generally supportive of partisan primaries.

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