Sep 19, 2023 - News

Proposal would overhaul Arizona elections with nonpartisan open primaries

Illustration of gold, silver and bronze check marks.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

A campaign to overhaul Arizona's election system by eliminating partisan primaries and opening the door to ranked-choice voting kicked off Tuesday when advocates filed their long-awaited citizen initiative with the secretary of state's office.

Details: The Make Elections Fair Act is a proposed amendment to the Arizona Constitution that would abolish taxpayer-funded partisan primaries and instead create an open primary in which all candidates for partisan offices appear on the same ballot.

  • All voters, regardless of party affiliation or lack thereof, would vote on that ballot.
  • Signature requirements for candidates to get their names on the primary ballot would be the same, regardless of party.
  • Ballots would include statements explaining that candidates' party affiliation doesn't indicate they're endorsed by that party.

How it works: The Legislature would be tasked with deciding how many candidates advance to the general election. For a race in which one candidate is elected, two to five can advance.

  • If only two candidates advance to the general, both could be from the same party.
  • If more than two candidates advance to the general, the eventual winner would be elected through a form of ranked-choice voting (RCV).
  • Under RCV, voters list candidates by preference, and if no candidate gets a majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and their second-choice votes are given to the remaining candidates until someone has over 50%.

Of note: The secretary of state would determine how many candidates advance to the general election if the Legislature fails to do so.

  • Charter cities that hold nonpartisan elections would decide for themselves how many candidates advance to the general.

Why it matters: Advocates view partisan primaries as discriminatory toward independents, who currently constitute a plurality of registered voters in Arizona.

  • Independents can vote in partisan primaries but must specifically request a ballot rather than being sent one automatically.
  • Independent candidates don't run in primaries and go straight to the general election ballot but must collect substantially more signatures to qualify than major-party candidates.
  • RCV advocates view their system as making it more difficult for more extreme candidates on the right and left to get elected.

Between the lines: The initiative would also ban public funding for presidential preference elections unless they're open to registered independents or voters under parties that don't appear on the ballot.

  • It would also ban publicly funded elections for political party officials known as precinct committeemen.

By the numbers: The campaign must collect at least 383,923 valid signatures by July 3, 2024, to qualify for next November's ballot.

What they're saying: Consultant Chuck Coughlin, who's helping to run the campaign, noted that most legislative and congressional districts don't have competitive general elections because they're predominantly Democratic or Republican.

  • "What this does is it guarantees general election competition, real competition, not token opposition from some party that never can win one of these safe seats," he told Axios Phoenix.

The other side: Arizona GOP chair Jeff DeWit said the proposal will cause "confusion and voter disenfranchisement," and he called it a "convoluted" voting scheme pushed by "special interest groups" to take away voting power from Arizonans.

  • Rep. Austin Smith, R-Wittman, who sponsored a proposal that would protect partisan primaries and that lawmakers referred to the 2024 ballot, wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, the measure is an attempt to stop conservatives from winning primaries in red districts.
  • "None of this is about better representation, reducing division or making elections fair. It's about manipulation and one-party control," Smith wrote.

Get more local stories in your inbox with Axios Phoenix.

More Phoenix stories