NonPartisan Primary Elections

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An effort is underway to put an proposition on the 2012 general election ballot to create nonpartisan primary elections as a way to elect more mainstream candidates. ASU Political Science professor Jennifer Steen explains how similar systems have worked in other states.

Ted Simons: Supporters of a nonpartisan primary election system for Arizona hope to send a proposal to next year's general election ballot. Proponents believe nonpartisan or "top 2" elections are a way to produce more mainstream elected officials. Here to discuss potential consequences of a nonpartisan primary is Jennifer Steen, an assistant professor at of political science at Arizona State University. Good to have you.
Jennifer Steen: Thank you.
Ted Simons: Lets define terms here. What are we talking about? Nonpartisan primary.
Jennifer Steen: A nonpartisan primary -- using the word primary is not that accurate. There are no party nominations involved. It's a vehicle for narrowing the field of candidates to two - from however many initially seek to run for particular office. So it narrows down the fields to two and sends them on to a election. The primary is traditionally a vehicle for parties to make nominations but these won't be party nominations if the reform passes.

Ted Simons: This is the top two going into a run-off but isn't there another situation where the winner wins? Is that possible out there? Has that been done?

Jennifer Steen: Sure it's been done. And that will be what's going on with the recall election coming up for Senator Pearce. No matter -- the percentage of the votes they get. People can get elected with a very small percentage -- it's not something that is celebrated.

Ted Simons: What states have used this?

Jennifer Steen: Washington State has been using it for 2008 and 2010 and Louisiana has used a close variance, there are some distinctions but a variant of the nonpartisan primary for decades.

Jennifer Steen: What are we seeing as far as an impact in Washington and in Louisiana, because it would seem, especially with Louisiana doing it for that long, how come more states aren't doing it?

Jennifer Steen: It's funny, even though they've been using this primary in Louisiana for decades, there hasn't been good research or analysis to tell us how exactly elections and representation have turned out different in Louisiana from what they might have been under a regular system. And we can point to a number of races where the run-off included two candidates from the same party and that's a notable distinction. But it's not entirely clear that the quality of representation, the kinds of people who are elected in Louisiana -- entirely clear that the representation and people elected is substantively different than what it would be otherwise.

Ted Simons: What about Washington? I think what we're seeing in Arizona is a move to get a more moderate candidate on the ballot. Are you seeing that in Washington?

Jennifer Steen: So we don't know yet. It's too early to tell. No one has analyzed the folks elected in the last two years to see if they're closer to the center than their predecessors. There was a similar system in California that used a blanket primary and under that system we did see more moderate -- more moderate candidates getting elected and that had been the hope of the proponents that it would have a moderating influence.

Ted Simons: Conversely, what about minor parties? It seems like one or two things could happen. The minor parties are completely shut out or if you get a minor party in the top two, you have a serious chance now?

Jennifer Steen: That's right. The system is risky for minor party candidates because they run the risk of being completely shut out. However, if one does manage to squeak by and become the number two place in a particular election, they may have a chance of winning greater than other circumstances. In Washington State, there were minor party candidates who were nominated who made it into the top two in 2010. There were six legislative candidates, but none were elected and it's not actually entirely clear they were genuine minor party candidates. For example, the parties they ran under weren't really parties at all. The ‘Problem Fixer' party was one. The ‘Lower My Taxes' was another. So it does seem like it's been a positive development for minor parties in Washington State.

Ted Simons: I see, ok. What about voter turnout? We hear it's a way to get more to go to the polls. What does the research show?

Jennifer Steen: When you have a system that voter turnout goes up by a few points. The thinking is that the voters feel empowered; they feel like they have more choice and a better chance of impacting the general election outcome and that motivates them. It's true you see a spike in turnouts in these types of elections.

Ted Simons: Do you see a spike of candidates in these kind of elections?

Jennifer Steen: Actually, it doesn't -- so, I'm not sure if the answer because there's so few to really study. But what looks like what happened in Washington state, there's been a decrease in the number of democratic party candidates who've run for state legislature and the -- the likely explanation for that is that the democratic party has played a strong role in steering certain candidates away from races.

Ted Simons: Oh, interesting.

Jennifer Steen: They run a risk of having their entire candidates disqualified if too many run in a particular race. Say, five Democrats run, they may split the democratic vote and none of them make it into the top two. So both political parties have a bottleneck -- it turned out in Washington, the Republicans haven't seen a dip but the Democrats saw a decrease in the number of candidates.
Ted Simons: That almost leads to a stronger political party then?
Jennifer Steen: Well they really have to do something to defend themselves. The Washington system took away the last powers that the political parties had. They're not even con conferring nominations there. Not surprised they're fighting back for survival.
Ted Simons: Are the races in Washington and Louisiana are they more competitive? What are you seeing there?

Jennifer Steen: You see there are a number of districts that are blowout districts. And so if the top two are from opposite parties than the dominant party continues to win by a large margin and in most districts you don't see a lot of change. They'll nominate one democrat and one Republican and the traditional breakdown persists. But in Washington, you did see a number of legislative districts that nominated either two Democrats or two Republicans and so you know, one might have hoped that would mean more competition, intraparty instead of interparty. But in those races there was one dominant person in the final, so it didn't end up being so competitive.

Ted Simons: When talking about primaries or picking the candidate you want to run, could they not, if it's a legitimate primary system, could they not pull back and say we're going to pick our candidate by way of caucus, closed room votes?

Jennifer Steen: In theory, they could. I know there's been a lot of talk about what it might include but I haven't seen the legal language of it. So I don't know whether this initiative is going to allow for the possibility of political party nominations. The way it works in Washington state, political parties no longer nominate. They don't have a vehicle to nominate candidates for office. The Republican nominee is a Republican who's on the ballot and passed through the top two primary. If the Arizona constitution still allows for party nominations after nonpartisan primary is adopted, if it's adopted, of course, they certainly could opt for that. But Louisiana hasn't been using conventions all these years so, it's not clear to me why the Arizona state parties would decide to do so.

Ted Simons: Last question here, without -- you know, getting a opinion out of you, but as far as drawbacks and benefits for Arizona, something like this seem to make sense? A lot of people are pushing it, but a lot of political scientists say you don't know what you're pushing.

Jennifer Steen: We'll have a lot of electoral reform going on so it's unclear how all of those will play with this. But there is -- there is evidence that a primary like this tends to produce more moderate, more centrist candidates. If you're a centrist, that's going to sound great. You'll see that would be a step forward for Arizona. But there are a fair number of folks in Arizona who are pleased as punch with the representation they're getting and would prefer to have the political parties nominating. Loyal partisans who are, you know, more to the ends of the ideological spectrum.

Ted Simons: Fascinating stuff and it will be interesting to see how California handles this. The first time?

Jennifer Steen: Yes.

Ted Simons: Thanks for joining us.

Jennifer Steen: Thank you very much.

Jennifer Steen: ASU Professor of Political Science;

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