by James Adam

Come November, voters in Arizona will have the opportunity to drastically alter their election law. If passed, Proposition 121, the “Open Elections/Open Government Act,” will constitutionally eliminate politically affiliated primary elections. The new scheme will allow primary voters to vote for any candidate they wish, regardless of party registration. Although not a requirement, this new law will give voters the option of writing on the ballot their party affiliation when they cast their vote.  Currently Arizona has closed primaries, and voters are allowed to vote solely within their own registered party. If Proposition 121 passes, a primary between all the candidates will occur, and voters will be entitled to vote for whichever candidate they prefer. The two candidates acquiring the most votes will subsequently be placed on the general election ballot. Therefore, it is possible for a scenario where two Republicans gain the most votes in the primary, so both of their names appear on the final general election ballot.  There would thus be no Democratic or third party options. Current examples of states using the top-two primary format include Washington and California.

For once, Republicans, Democrats, and other minor parties enjoy consensus on an issue: they all dislike Proposition 121. A coalition called “Save our Vote” has emerged, intent on encouraging “No” votes come Election Day. Critics of Prop 121 are, among other things, worried about “sham candidates” being used to dilute votes and allow politicians who would normally be weeded out in a closed primary to come away victorious. Save Our Vote advocates are also worried about the Proposition’s effect on minority candidates. The worry is that a “Top 2” system will silence a minorities’ vote, and that a simple majority vote will easily outweigh their political viewpoints. Even third parties like the Libertarian and Green party have voiced their disapproval of Proposition 121. The current system allows their party to at least remain on the ballot, and give voters a chance to vote for a third party candidate that may better represent their interests. Finally, Proposition 121 may also limit shortcuts and cues that voters use to retain information, vastly increasing the time and energy required to discover what candidates truly align with their personal viewpoints. The argument is that without such cues, voters must engage in far greater research and preparation prior to Election Day.

Supporters of the act see this as an opportunity to open the forum and arena of political discussion, allowing independent voices to actually be heard. They see Proposition 121 as a way to remedy the current monopoly both major parties seem to enjoy over the electoral system. Their hope is that candidates will in turn be forced to address issues at stake for all Arizonans, and not limit their attentions to a certain subsection of a polarized population. Advocates believe the “Top 2” system will encourage more moderate candidates who better represent the view of Arizonans, a population that has recently become more independent leaning.

Although there seems to be a legitimate worry regarding the effects of Proposition 121, the idea does have significant merit. For one, although it may be harder for the Green Party or Libertarian Party to gain access to the ballot, theoretically voters will be able to choose from a wider variety of political views. Thus, individual parties may no longer be necessary as emerging candidates better reflect societies’ values. Perhaps this is sort of an attempt at moving towards a more proportional type of representation system. In time, it may encourage candidates with different viewpoints to step forward, and indeed lead to more moderate or “representative” views.

However, this system may very well fail minority voters and thus violate core Constitutional principles. Assuming that their interests do not align with majority voters, it may become very difficult for minorities to elect or nominate a candidate of their race or choice. If only the “Top 2” candidates in the primary are elected, regardless of political party, it may be significantly harder for a minority to elect one of its own members. It is also possible the system may discourage minority candidates from running.  The Proposition could potentially decrease minorities’ chances of electing a candidate with their views due to the likelihood of vote splitting.

Perhaps however, Proposition 121 could create a positive effect for minority voters. Due to candidates necessarily having to attract the most voters possible from the entire district, they may have more incentive and no choice but to reach out to minority voters to secure their vote. There is at least an argument that open primaries may give minorities a greater voice in the political process.

There is little doubt that if passed, Proposition 121 will have a huge impact on the way campaigns are run in Arizona. It would dramatically impact campaign spending, who runs, and minority voices in the electoral process. For these reasons, it is certainly worth keeping an eye on the results of this vote come November.

James Adam is a third-year student at William & Mary Law School.

permalink: http://electls.blogs.wm.edu/2012/10/30/is-a-top-2-primary-in-arizona-on-the-horizon/

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