Open Primaries won’t change much of anything but its supporters are still insufferable
I hate to say it, but I agree to an extent with Bob Robb in his latest column about the Top Two primary initiative.
Democratic prospects in Arizona would dim even further if the top-two primary initiative passed. The initiative aims to dilute the influence of conservative Republicans, and Republicans are the ones organizing the inchoate opposition. But Democrats will be the big losers if it passes.
That’s because the Republican registration and turnout advantage means that Democrats face a real risk of their candidates not even making it to the general-election ballot for statewide offices.
In 2010, the last primary for the full array of statewide offices, Republican turnout was 47 percent, Democratic turnout was 29 percent and independent turnout was 12 percent.
In the GOP primary for attorney general, Tom Horne got slightly more than 276,000 votes and Andrew Thomas got slightly fewer than 276,000. The winner of the Democratic primary, Felecia Rotellini, got only about 120,000 votes. In other words, the winner of the Democratic primary got considerably less than half of the votes of the loser of the GOP primary. If independent turnout had doubled and Rotellini got 100 percent of it, she still would have ended up well behind Thomas.
Robb is overstating the risk for Democrats, since he doesn’t mention that Rotellini was in a 3-way primary herself and there were just over 290,000 total Dem votes cast in that race. With no opponents Rotellini would have undoubtedly secured a spot in a top two primary, since it’s unlikely that either of the two puffed up ego balloons on the GOP side would have cleared the way for the other. Judging from how the parties are handling nonpartisan municipal races these days – with one Democrat facing a large field of Republicans in city after city – it would be reasonable to conclude that’s how many of the big statewide and competitive legislative races under top two primaries would go. Republicans, despite their considerable demographic advantage in Arizona, will find it impossible to enforce single-shot discipline.
You can also look at California, which held its first primary this past June under the top two system voters approved there in 2010. California is the practically the mirror image opposite of Arizona in terms of Democratic gains vs. Republican declines in the past several elections. What effect did the new primary system have on the outcomes? Not much. So I don’t believe the situation is as dire for Democrats as Robb predicts. But still, he is right to say that Top Two is a bigger threat to the Democrats than to the GOP.
Which makes this little exhibition all the more tiresome:
Former Mayor of Phoenix Paul Johnson, a Democrat turned Independent leaned hard on the “both sides” canard to sell the initiative to moderator Steve Goldstein. I’m not sure why Johnson, given his pedigree, has bought into the myth that today’s Democratic legislators in Arizona are mostly the Trotskyite equivalents of the John Birchers in the GOP caucus but it looks like he has. It honestly makes me disinclined to listen to anything he ever says about anything.
The other guy on the panel is Jaime Molera, a Republican who opposes Open Primaries. When asked by Goldstein to explain why, he ticked off a series of election reforms enacted in Arizona since the mid-80s – campaign finance limits, term limits, independent redistricting, and (of course) Clean Elections – and claims none of them did what proponents promised they would do. Little too kitchen sink-y for my taste, but Molera made some fair points nonetheless. Molera was sharper when he pointed to the dismal primary turnouts in Nebraska and Louisiana, which have had top two primaries for many years and mentioned KKK leader David Duke’s successful bid for a general slot in a LA governor’s race. Johnson’s response to that was, um, interesting. You can see it for yourself starting at 8:38 minutes into the video:
David Duke lost in that race! Okay, that’s true. Duke’s opponent Edwin Edwards, who was a major crook, did get elected Governor in 1991. Edwards the crook won because there were only two choices on the ballot that November, one of them being David Duke. It was a ludicrous enough rebuttal but Johnson doubled down on it by claiming that in Arizona “David Dukes, it seems, win in every election cycle, in the partisan system!” On both sides, right Paul?
Nebraska has had that system since 1933. How can you determine turnout based on that? It’s so old! This is fascinating since Johnson is expressing complete confidence that top two primaries is a “system that’s been tried, it works”. Well, uh, why shouldn’t we look to a place where it’s been tried since 1933 to examine how effective it is in producing high turnout?
But wait. Johnson says it’s not about turnout at all. Seriously.
“This isn’t about turnout. This is about changing the attitudes of elected officials once they end up in office.” Wait, what? Johnson seems to be going a tad off the reservation here, because here’s what the Arizona Open Government website says about its own initiative on its homepage:
Most voters who feel our election system is broken believe so because it is closed to THEM. It isn’t about the people, but about power. It’s the partisan political bosses who set the agenda, and even handpick candidates to run. More and more voters believe our elections are closed affairs offering little choice—and few results. serve us well in elected office choose not to run.
That is why respected business and community leaders like you from across Arizona are coming together to place the Open Elections/Open Government Initiative before Arizona voters in 2012.
Open Elections/Open Government will do away with the partisan August Primary elections in Arizona in which only a limited number of voters now participate and are only permitted to cast ballots for the partisan candidates from one party. These elections will be replaced by an open primary where the top two vote-getters will advance to a runoff.
Gee, that doesn’t seem like the manifesto of a bunch of people unconcerned about turnout, does it? But maybe Johnson just misspoke in the heat of the debate. Or maybe he revealed a different and possibly less democratic intention of some of the people behind the initiative. At any rate, it’s not the prospects of the initiative passing (I’m sure it will if it gets to the ballot), or even the initiative itself (which won’t have that much impact on elections anyway, judging from past and current experience) that bother me so much. It’s the condescending and disingenuous rhetoric of the top two primary proponents that is getting on my nerves. They are contributing to the very climate of false equivalence that misinforms the public and leads to very sort of apathy in the electorate that they claim to abhor.