Climate change?: Open primaries, ranked-choice voting measures offer Arizonans upsides & intrigue

Next year, Arizona voters could being choosing from as many as three propositions that would change how they cast future ballots. Two similar propositions seek to empower the middle. The Legislature will ask voters to keep things the way they are. If they all make the ballot, the proposition with the most votes wins.

One of the reform efforts began with futility.

Chuck Coughlin, a top Republican political consultant out of Phoenix, was trying to help a slate of candidates – Republicans and even a couple Democrats – in 2022.

Then something strange happened for the veteran campaign Jedi: 

“We lost every race,” Coughlin said. “We have been working on this for a long time. We’re trying to turn out independents and trying to turn out general election Republicans in the primary and trying to turn out independents. It does not work. The barriers for participation in a closed primary does not lend itself to a competitive environment.”

Meanwhile, Sarah Smallhouse, scion of the Burr-Brown semi-conductor fortune, had started a foundation focusing on civic leadership and economic education.

The Thomas R. Brown Foundation, where Smallhouse serves as executive director, worked with the Flinn Foundation to establish the aptly named “Flinn-Brown” fellowship to encourage mid-stage professionals to run for office.

The fellowship groomed a new generation of civic leaders and they would routinely run for office and… lose.

“You can only withstand that for so long before you think that we’re funding these do-gooders and what good are we doing?” Smallhouse said.

Coughlin and Smallhouse made the mistake of running candidates who believed in nuance and compromise in the current political climate.

So they are trying to induce some climate change.

At this point, a reader can be forgiven for thinking “Wait, we have to change how we do elections because these two couldn’t get their peeps elected?”

No. What they are trying to save us from is a real thing. A combination of safe districts and semi-closed primaries have twisted political incentives. Whether two voting reform efforts underway are the best way to fix it is worth debating.

Independents and non-affiliated voters make up the plurality of the state’s voter rolls. Those citizens are kind of at the mercy of the two political parties and their bases.

The answer is not to establish a third party in a system with a winner-take-all electoral college or what the Brits call “first-past-the-post” campaigns that reward the party that wins the most individual races. That system can shut out minor parties from representation and reward plurality parties with supermajorities.

So maybe there’s another way to empower the middle.

The three-step plan

Coughlin and Smallhouse are working right now to put a three-step constitutional amendment to voters in next year’s election. 

Step one: Independents could get on the ballot without having to gather extra numbers of signatures. Right now, independent candidates need more nominating signatures because they go straight to the general election ballot without the trouble of a primary. 

Step two: Under the proposal, independents would join Democrats, Republicans, Greens, Libertarians and all other candidates in an open primary. Voters from all persuasions would cast ballots for any candidate running.

If it sounds wild, there’s a reason they call this a “jungle primary.”

Step three: How many candidates move on would be up to the Legislature to decide by passing a law allowing between the top two and five candidates to advance to a general election. Any number more than two would trigger ranked-choice voting.

This voting system is gaining popularity. Voters have established it in Blue Maine and Red Alaska, among other places.

It works like this: Voters rank their votes among general election candidates. If no one gets a majority among the first-choice votes, the candidate coming in last is dropped, and voters who picked that person first have their second-choice votes tallied instead.

In practice, it might look like this: Say a party like No Labels runs a candidate under the current system. The vote finishes with Donald Trump 45 percent of the vote. President Joe Biden carries 42 percent and (just to throw a name out there) West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin wins 13 percent. Well, that’s four more years of an Orange nightmare the majority does not want.

Under ranked-choice voting, Manchin falls out of contention and election workers start divvying up his voters second choices. Say they break 9 points to Biden and 4 to Trump. Biden carries the state 51-49. 

This system allows voters to cast a ballot for their favorite candidate without throwing their vote away. 

So it is incumbent on candidates to appeal at least somewhat to a majority of voters rather than riding a split opposition to victory.

Get the Leg out

The second and more full-throated ballot reform option that could go to voters would will also lower the signature-gathering requirements for citizen initiatives, create open primaries and require ranked choice voting, no matter what the Legislature says – the key difference between the reform efforts.

“We want to take the question out of the hands of the Legislature and put it in the hands of the citizens,” said Kazz Fernandes, executive director of Better Ballot Arizona.

The backers of this amendment drive don’t have the exact language down, haven’t started gathering petitions and are going to have to live off the land when it comes to money.

So this plan has some hurdles to jump.

Both groups tag the number of uncompetitive legislative districts at 80 percent, which means 72 of the 90 state lawmakers only have to appeal to their party’s base in primaries.

Opening the primary will empower a broader universe of voters to decide who runs Arizona, backers say.

“The primary voter is a very small part of the overall voting population,” Fernandes says of the current system.

The Legislature’s option is simply to leave things the way they are. A party that is increasingly losing its majority grip clearly prefers to keep appealing to a plurality. That way they can win without ever asking for the vote of anyone who watches anything more moderate than Fox News.

Republicans like to make the loud and obnoxious majority of their supporters think the actual majority is irrelevant.

“Our democratic institutions are under attack,” Fernandes said. “So our plan is to make our politicians more accountable. So that people have the power again.”

Intrigued but unconvinced

So… ummm… what’s my brilliant insight?

I find myself wildly intrigued by these ballot measures but not entirely convinced. I like how their backers describe them. Then I wander back into cynical reality ‘cuz I suck like that.

At first, both propositions (should both be on the ballot — the backers of each need to gather a lot of signatures) seem like grenades tossed at a dysfunctional system. But no, they’re really shaped charges designed to release energy in a specific direction.

Will there be blowback? I don’t know. 

For starters, there have long been complaints about independents being disenfranchised. Arizona independents can vote now in Democrat or Republican primaries but they can only choose one or the other. Does that dampen participation? 

Maybe independents just don’t give a damn about primaries. Would they care enough to vote if independent voters were on the ballot? That’s unknown.

I don’t know that changing how people vote will have much affect in safe districts.

Well, there is one way. 

Open primaries in California have had some unintended consequences. In one heavily Republican legislative district, two Democrats emerged to face off in the general election. Republicans were shut out. The Left might think that’s funny until it happens to them.

Ranked-choice voting caused all sorts of chaos in the Democratic primary held as part of the New York City mayoral race.

Do we really need to give Kari Lake more reasons to complain about the call at the plate?

On the other hand, ranked-choice has been used by states like Alaska and Maine to great effect. No one calls Sarah Palin “congresswoman” and former two-term crackpot Gov. Paul LePage of Maine has nowhere to go politically but away.

The party crashers

People in charge have no real incentive to listen to reason.

Coughlin and Smallhouse say it’s both parties but c’mon. One of America’s political parties has straight up jumped the shark, the orca and a few ocean liners.

Coughlin and I both think it’s doubtful a guy like former Gov. Doug Ducey could ever win another Republican primary in Arizona. What liberal policy did Doug Ducey pursue? Name one.

Ducey’s problem is he’s just not “Space Laser-y” enough.

As I write this, Republicans in Washington are moving toward impeaching Joe Biden for a crime they can’t identify, while GOP extremists insist on shutting down the government but they can’t really say why.

They do know they want to take away the right to abortion and slash the Women, Infant, Children nutrition program. Apparently they think that’s funny. Fine, they are pro-life
just to watch kids go hungry. By the way, that was in the plan the radicals rejected as not vicious enough.

What does a Republican like U.S. Rep. Juan Ciscomani do? The Southern Arizona congressman is toast if he goes along with this wackiness and is a crispy critter if he doesn’t. If he stands up to his party’s MAGA base, he’ll struggle to win a primary. If he doesn’t, how can he tell general election voters he’s a normal Republican?

Democrats tend to be far more forgiving of independent thought.The 2020 Democratic presidential nomination didn’t go to “true progressives” like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. Democrats rallied around Sen. Kyrsten Sinema the first time knowing full well she was a moderate. They happily worked to elect Kris Mayes as attorney general, even though she ran as a centrist and is a former Republican corporation commissioner.

Sinema’s didn’t end her political career by defying her base. She risked it when she cut off contact with the constituents who elected her. 

On the other hand, the party has been trending left and elements of the base have an infuriating way of crucifying converts. Every time a new Republican shows up on the side of democracy, someone on Twitter gripes “but they were wrong about Iraq!”

STFU. Team Freedom needs every warm body it can get.

Part of me is OK with a one-size fits all solution to a Republican problem because that problem is huge.

A noble endeavor 

Coughlin and Smallhouse should be commended for their efforts.

Yeah, I know Coughlin helped elect a lot of people who made my eyes roll but I always admired his game. And he’s been pretty vocal about his party going off the rails. He’s trying to save it. Good.

The antidote to right-wing one-party rule isn’t left-wing one-party rule. He’s on the side of preserving our democratic way of life and that’s a good thing cuz he could make a lot of money destroying it.

Smallhouse is an heiress of privilege and so is Marjorie Taylor Green. One is trying to help the republic. The other is trying to wreck it. Thank God there are people like Smallhouse trying to do the right thing for society rather than smoothing the road for their own luxury. 

Their goal is undeniably good. Empowering that majority between the poles will lead to compromise and compromise is how progress happens in a pluralistic democracy. The Left and the Right have the task of moving the middle toward their respective side.

I want to say political polarization is what’s really driving the strength of the partisan bases but I think it might be overhyped.

The country is evenly divided when we choose up teams but not when we use our personal thinking devices.

Grand consensus exist for immigration reform, expanding health care, protecting a woman’s right to choose, balanced budgets, border security, a strong defense, school funding and, yes, school choice.

Even much-derided social justice issues are en vogue among the broad electorate.

Rallying around the middle of the arguments to create progress isn’t selling out. 

Will open primaries and ranked-choice voting re-establish the middle on these issues so the state and country can get stuff done? Maybe.

I think what it could do is open up the opportunity for smart political candidates to make it so. 

Maybe it will just go screwy and lead to unintended consequences, as all policy does.

The reformers have a year and two months to make their case. I know I’m open to it.