Valdez: How to improve elections - Open Primaries Arizona
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Valdez: How to improve elections

Posted by Kellie Ryan on January 12, 2016 at 6:02 PM

Valdez: How to improve elections

This article was written by Linda Valdez for the Arizona Republic.

Can we make it through this legislative session without any major embarrassment? No right-to-refuse service bills. No official state sanction of racial profiling. No easy punch lines for the national media.

That’s a lot to expect from a Republican-ruled Legislature where extremism in defense of the ridiculous is considered a virtue.

We'll have to grit our teeth through another session. But we don’t have to keep it this way.

There are two ideas that could shake up an unsatisfactory status quo.

Step 1: Nix the two-party primary

First, you get rid of partisan primaries.

The system is a relic. These days, people who register to vote with no party affiliation make up the largest group of voters in the state. They can vote in partisan primaries, but few independents engage in elections devised to serve the political parties they have already rejected.

Partisan primaries are ruled by a few die-hard voters who represent the fringes of each party. Because most districts are not competitive, the primary candidates those extremists pick usually win in November. No moderates need apply.

In 2012, there was a ballot initiative to create a non-partisan, open primary system. It looked popular, but it failed after a "dark money" campaign raised doubts in voters’ minds.

“You learn a lot from failure,” says former Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson, who championed the measure.

He made a checklist of what to do differently. He’s ready to try again to pass an open primary initiative.

Step 2: Shine a light on dark money

Now about that dark money.

Former Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard is leading the effort to establish a state constitutional right for you to know who is spending money to influence Arizona's elections.

Currently, certain non-profit organizations can collect unlimited anonymous donations that can be used to buy elections.

In 2012, dark money campaigns defeated the effort to extend a one-cent sales tax for education, as well as the open primary effort. Questions about dark money haunt the Arizona Corporation Commission. Outside money helped Republican Gov. Doug Ducey beat Fred DuVal in 2014.

That year, spending to influence races in Arizona by groups outside the state hit $27.3 million. At least 46 percent of that spending was from dark money groups that don’t have to identify donors.

The influence of dark money is expected to grow, giving anonymous, big-money wizards increasing influence over our elections. Goddard’s initiative would pull back the curtain.

“Knowing who is supporting candidates will make a difference in who gets elected,” says Goddard.

Disclosure gives people valuable information. Open primaries encourage moderate candidates.

These initiatives are not finished and they are not filed. But that should happen soon. If both get enough signatures, they would be two separate measures on the November ballot. The campaigns would run in tandem.

The measures reinforce each other to fix what Goddard calls a “seriously deranged election system.”

Winning won’t be easy. “The status quo does not go quietly,” says Johnson.

But it should go. The antics of the Legislature demonstrate that with cringe-inducing regularity.