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Arizona's election system perpetuates partisan divisions. We can make it better

Ted Hinderaker :: Arizona Republic

Lincoln famously observed that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Following an election that is still being contested by the sitting president and a sizable percentage of one political party, we seem as divided as at any time since the Civil War.

But does the “division” reflect actual irreconcilable cultural and political differences, or is it the byproduct of an election system designed to divide us and to serve the interests of a political industrial complex rather than the public?

The political parties enforce party fealty and prevent bipartisan cooperation through primary elections controlled by the Democratic and Republican parties but funded by taxpayers.

The Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission is tasked with drawing Arizona’s congressional and state legislative district lines. Yet, the commission and its selection process are not free of political influence, and only a small percentage of Arizona legislative districts are deemed competitive.

We discriminate against independents

Because approximately 90% of Arizona legislative districts are considered “safe districts,” and general elections are determined by plurality voting, the winner of the Democratic primary election in a predominantly Democratic district almost always wins the general election, and similarly for Republicans in Republican districts.

This allows party leaders to threaten elected officials who fail to conform to party direction with being “primaried” in the next election cycle and losing their jobs. The predictable result is strict party line legislation and the precipitous decline of moderates willing to work across the aisle.

Arizona elections also discriminate against non-party affiliated candidates and voters, who constitute approximately one-third of the electorate. Independent candidates are required to obtain more signatures to make the ballot. They receive only 70% of Clean Election funding available to partisan candidates and are listed last on the ballot.

Although independent voters are permitted to participate in most statewide primary elections, they are only allowed to vote for a primary candidate affiliated with a political party. Furthermore, unlike Republicans and Democrats who can register once to vote by mail, independents must request a mail-in ballot for each election. Many independents don’t realize they can vote in a primary election and fail to participate.

Arizona needs nonpartisan primaries

Nothing in the Arizona or U.S. constitutions prevents us from improving an election system that penalizes bipartisanship, discriminates against independent voters and candidates, and prevents us from solving problems.

In their book, “ The Politics Industry ,” Katherine Gehl and Michael Porter advocate for a single nonpartisan primary election open to all voters, with the top five vote-getters advancing to a general election where the winner is selected by ranked-choice voting.

Open nonpartisan primaries work in tandem with ranked-choice voting by allowing candidates to address issues without fear of being “primaried,” and give independent and minor party voters the opportunity to vote for candidates in a general election based on issues rather than party, without wasting their vote on a “spoiler” candidate.

The nonpartisan primary movement is gaining momentum. By citizens initiative, Washington and California have adopted open nonpartisan primary elections, and Maine has adopted ranked-choice voting.

Only a few states could transform D.C.

In November 2020, Alaska became the first state to combine a nonpartisan primary with ranked-choice voting for state and federal elections. A single nonpartisan primary election that advances five candidates to a general election where the winner is selected by ranked choice voting, would treat all candidates and voters equally and create incentives for bipartisanship rather than punishing efforts to solve problems.

If applied to congressional elections in Arizona it has the added benefit of ensuring that our congressional delegation will not be blackmailed by threat of being primaried from the extreme wings of either party. If only a few states join Alaska in reforming their election laws, the result in Washington could be transformative.

We cannot depend upon the Political Industrial Complex to reform itself. Nonpartisan grass roots movements and ordinary citizens must lead on this issue. If you are interested in learning more about the nonpartisan primary movement, read “The Politics Industry” or visit the website for The Institute for Political Innovation at political-innovation.org .

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