Proposals seek to upend Arizona election system - Open Primaries Arizona
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Posted by Kellie Ryan on January 22, 2016 at 2:45 PM

Proposals seek to upend Arizona election system

This article was written by Mary Jo Pitzl for The Arizona Republic.

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Unlikely allies want to shake up Arizona elections with proposals outlawing anonymous corporate political donations and replacing a primary system they say favors the extremes of both major political parties.

The proposed ballot measures are being spearheaded by two former Phoenix mayors who ran as Democrats for governor and the Republican political consultant who most recently backed Gov. Jan Brewer.

But Terry Goddard, Paul Johnson and Chuck Coughlin say they've found common ground in a quest that Coughlin describes as an effort "to reinvent the architecture of Arizona politics."

Supporters cite the fact independents have become the largest voting block in Arizona and could propel both measures to success in November.

"A political system has to accurately represent the true picture of the electorate," said Jackie Salit, president of IndependentVoting.org. And that's not happening now, she said.

Both initiatives seek to amend the Arizona Constitution to:

  • require disclosure of non-profit corporations which so far have been legally able to spend money to influence political races without naming their donors.
  • create a "top-two" primary system that would replace the existing partisan-primary system.

The announcement came on the six-year  anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in the Citizens United case, which eliminated limits on corporate and union spending on campaigns.

Each measure must get the signatures of at least 225,963 registered voters by July 7 to qualify for the ballot.

The two measures will be run as one campaign; to kick things off, the national Open Primaries group gave a $1 million contribution to the effort. The main donor is Texas philanthropist John Arnold.

'Dark Money'

Shining a light on dark-money contributors was a key part of Goddard's 2014 bid for Secretary of State. The issue became personal when a registered non-profit corporation, the 60 Plus Association, poured $300,000 into his race in the closing weeks. The group also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to support the election of Gov. Doug Ducey. Goddard blames the group's expenditure for his defeat.

The Open and Honest Disclosure ballot measure would require disclosure of the original source of any contribution of $10,000 or more to a campaign for or against a candidate.

"The idea is the people or corporation that got the money in motion must be named," Goddard said. In past campaigns, such money has been passed along a chain of various non-profit corporations, with only the name of the donor who actually makes the contribution to the campaign disclosed. Dark money accounted for $27.3 million in spending in the 2014 campaign cycle, according to an Arizona Republic analysis.

The disclosure provision would not apply to ballot issues, such as the penny sales-tax proposed in Proposition 204 four years ago. That initiative, as well as one proposing a top-two primary system, were defeated due in large part to an infusion of about $1.5 million from Americans for Responsible Leadership, a dark money group once headed by Ducey's Chief of Staff Kirk Adams.

Goddard said including ballot propositions would have complicated the language of the initiative. Besides, he said, voters can read the ballot language and have a clear idea of what it proposes to do, suggesting anonymous donors wouldn't have as much sway over voters' decisions in such races as they do in candidate campaigns.

Enforcement would be up to the Arizona secretary of state, or to city and county clerks for campaigns in those jurisdictions. Those offices, however, can only refer a matter to the state attorney general or local prosecutors. Early critics have said letting a partisan office such as secretary of state determine whether to go after anyone violating the provisions of the initiative could be bring politics into the mix. They would prefer an independent board or office.

But Goddard said anyone rebuffed by the secretary of state could use the initiative's citizen-enforcement provision, which would allow them to sue just as the secretary of state's office could. He acknowledged it's expensive to file lawsuits, but said if successful, any plaintiff would be able to recover attorneys' fees and costs.

This might not be the only dark-money proposal going before voters: The Arizona Advocacy Network is working on plans of its own, but has not disclosed details. In addition, Democrats in the Legislature have introduced bills to require dark-money disclosure; they have not yet been assigned for a committee hearing.

Top-two primary

It's the second time around for the concept of a top-two primary, which is being proposed by the Open and Honest Elections Committee. It would scrap the state's existing partisan primaries and instead require candidates, regardless of their political affiliation (or lack of it), to compete in a single primary. Candidates would be labeled by their voter registration if the government division overseeing the election, such as the local city council or the state Legislature, decides to require listing party affiliation.

The top two voter-getters would advance to the general election.

Backers say such a structure creates an incentive for candidates to appeal to the political center, since voters of all orientations would be casting ballots. The system is similar to the non-partisan primaries in many Arizona cities. And it has been adopted in California and Washington, with mixed results.

Coughlin said the proposition should make elections more competitive.

"If that system of open competition is good for consumers at the airport, think how good it would be for voters, regardless of party affiliation," he said, drawing an analogy to Ducey's call for unfettered access for ride-share operators such as Uber and Lyft at Sky Harbor International Airport.

A similar measure was on Arizona's 2012 ballot, but voters rejected it, 67 percent to 33 percent.

The Arizona Republican Party is already on record opposing the idea, and has filed complaints with the secretary of state over the funding supporting the ballot initiative. One of those complaints is being pursued by the attorney general's office. The Democratic Party has not weighed in on the matter, noting that the ballot language was only made public today.

In addition to changing the primary rules, the measure also seeks to create a level playing field for all candidates. That means independents, who rarely run for state office because the system favors the two major parties, would be subject to the same requirements as Republicans and Democrats, from the number of signatures needed to qualify for the ballot to access to voter-registration information.

Coughlin said the campaign has requested a meeting with Ducey to solicit his support for the measures, but has not yet received a response.

Reach the reporter at maryjo.pitzl@arizonarepublic.com and follow her on Twitter @maryjpitzl.