Vote 2012: Prop 121 (Top-Two Primary Initiative)

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A constitutional amendment on this November’s ballot would create a “top-two primary” in Arizona, where the two candidates with the highest number of votes in the primary election would face off in the general election, regardless of party affiliation. Paul Johnson of the Open Government Act initiative will speak in favor of the top-two primary, while Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery will speak against it.

Ted Simons: Good evening, and welcome to "Arizona Horizon." I'm Ted Simons.

Ted Simons: Proposition 121, the open elections, open government act, calls for a significant change to the state's primary election system. If the measure passes, all voters regardless of party, could vote for any candidate on the ballot. The two candidates with the most votes regardless of party, would then proceed to the general election. Here to speak in favor of prop 121 is Paul Johnson, chairman of the open government committee the group that put the measure on the ballot, speaking against prop 121, is Maricopa County attorney, Bill Montgomery. Thanks for joining us. Paul, let's start with you. Why amend the Arizona constitution for something like this?

Paul Johnson: You don't have to do a poll to know that the public has become completely disenfranchised with the two-party system we have, through no organized effort whatsoever, about a third of the voters have left both of the parties and registered as independents. What our measure does is it's really simple. It eliminates the partisan primary, it replaces witness an open election where every voter can vote for every candidate in every election, it creates real competition, which doesn't happen today, today we have 26 out of 30 districts, they've been gerrymandered to the point they're faith district, meaning you have no real competition in the general election. This assures you will. And the third thing it does is it helps in that when candidates have to go talk to all voters, Republicans, democrats, and independents alike, it gives them a reason, an incentive to cross the aisle and to work together with people from the other partly.

Ted Simons: Why is this a bad idea?

Bill Montgomery: We've heard the same song before. First it was limiting individual contributions, then it was term limits, then it was clean elections, then it was the independent redistricting commission. And now it's open elections open government. I'm reminded of that admonition to keep an open mind, but not so open your brain falls out. We're being promised things that an election system cannot deliver. If it's competition, it doesn't guarantee you're going to have competitive districts. California, which just recently tried this, has similar number of districts now as they did before, where there isn't any real competition. The reality in a number of districts in California, you don't have a real general election choice anymore, because you have two people from the same party now on a general election ballot. That's really what's going on. It's not just changing primaries, it's changing the general election, reducing choice and bringing more money into the process.

Ted Simons: What are we seeing from Louisiana, Washington, and California, states that have experimented, continue to experiment with this idea?

Paul Johnson: In California in the last five years, 250 congressional races, only one time has it changed from one party to another. During the election process. This time there are probably going to be 10 turnovers. It went from being the least competitive state in the nation, to being now considered to be the most competitive state in the nation. Meaning there are no races competitive there today than there ever have been in California's history. What we're seeing in Washington is that there is a much different level of a debate. If you know the only thing you're going to have to do is run on a primary, you go demonize the other side. If you're a democrat you go demonize the Republicans. If you're a Republican, you demonize the democrats. But when you know you're going to have to appeal to every voter in both elections, you don't do that because it's too important to you to be able to keep those votes.

Ted Simons: The idea of pitching WOO to a broader audience, having to do that, why is that a bad idea?

Bill Montgomery: Well, it's not that it's a bad idea. This doesn't guarantee it. It's another false promise. What winds of happening is you create the same elections calculus as do you now. Here's how it works. Ideally in the general distribution of voters, you might have an even distribution of people who would find themselves in any point on the political spectrum. But the reality is, in either party, you have 20 to 30% who are very strong supporters of their entire party's platform. Their committed voters. That doesn't change in an open primary. Instead at that point you could have as many as seven, nine, 10, 12 different candidates, you're going to try to figure out how you get a plurality. You don't need 51% if you have 10 candidates. You may be able to get through with less than 20%, so you're going to go to that committed group, you're not going to waste money on trying to address everyone, because if you did, you'd have to raise over 2½ times as much money to do it. And that just brings more dirty money.

Ted Simons: The idea it would be more expensive to run a campaign if you have to appeal to a broader audience, if there are many more candidates running all of which are viable in this kind of system, how do you respond?

Paul Johnson: Bill has given you the academic. I've run in both systems -- in an open election like a city election, for mayor, and I can tell you we modeled this after city elections. And I've also run on a partisan primary. I can just tell you the answer is, if you appeal to the extreme, you might win the primary. You will not win the general election. Talk to any candidate who runs in an open primary type of system, and the answer is, you have to appeal to people in the other party. In terms of cost, it's all about -- you than look at it like a market. There's only so much money you can raise. We have clean elections at the state legislature, and they're going to have to figure out how they're going to divide that money up. The voters put it into place, we'll have to decide how to best spend it. But either way, in terms of cost, I've run in both systems, and I. Promise you running in a partisan system is equally expensive.

Ted Simons: The idea that this would result in more moderate candidates in more moderate winners of legislative and other races, state races and such, and that these folks will be more willing to compromise, more willing to cooperate than what we see now. Valid argument?

Bill Montgomery: There's no objective data to support that whatsoever. Another empty promise. Besides, your moderate candidate could be my extreme candidate. In addition to the fact the legislature is going to have to change the clean elections provision of the statute, there's 70 other changes to be made. In California, the amount spent in a primary went from 23 million to 46 million. You don't have to appeal to candidates, to voters in another party. There's a congressional district in California that have been represented by a democrat, had a democrat on the ballot for 160 years. It's a majority-minority district. Three democrats ran, two Republicans ran. The two Republicans split the Republican vote; the three democrats split their party's vote. And now voters from that district have a choice between two Republicans on their ballot. You change the system, you don't change the outcome. This is dependent upon voters and their individual choice. And you can't take that away from voters or try to get them to do what you want them to do.

Ted Simons: The idea of fraud, shenanigans, this kind of stuff going on, if you're running for a race I can find someone named Paul Johnson, get them on the ballot so no one knows which Paul Johnson. This kind of business, is that being addressed in this proposition?

Paul Johnson: Yes. Two issues -- first the district that bill was talking about a moment ago, he would have had one person to choose from in the general election. He's right; it had never turn the over from one party to the next. Meaning there was no choice in the general election. This, the voters will have a choice. It will be two Republicans, but one of those Republicans is going to go appeal to democrats. Specifically to your question --

Ted Simons: Hold on. Is that accurate representation of that district?

Paul Johnson: Absolutely. Here's why. I won on a 3-1 Republican district as a democrat when I was a city council person. I ran against one other person. I knocked on their doors. I listened. And it probably made me more conservative than most of my colleagues. I certainly was for -- I wasn't for tax increases, I looked for ways to reduce regulation. Why did I do that? I think candidates are a product of who they talk to. If the only persons they're speaking to are the far ideal call left or right, they trend in that direction. On the fraud issue, in 2010, we had 14 Republican and homeless individuals who changed their party registration on one day, and they ran as green party candidates in democratically competitive districts. Because they thought they could dissuade votes against them that. Was orchestrated by the majority leadership position in the legislature. We found that out in a court trial. So here's what I would tell you -- if you're looking at fraud or if you're looking at people who are going to do those shenanigans, you have all that you would want in the two-party system. My system doesn't guarantee that goes away but you wouldn't get on the ballot with one signature like you can today.

Ted Simons: Address that, please.

Bill Montgomery: The signature requirements can be addressed without having to do away with our election system. We can simply go in and make sure independent candidates don't have to collect signatures to a greater degree than partisan candidates have to. If that's the problem, we can address it. We, do it in a more focused manner. But I gotta tell you, this comparison to municipal elections is not an apples-to-apples comparison. When you run in a municipal election, there's no party affiliation that shows up on the ballot. It truly is nonpartisan. This initiative doesn't do that. You the still show up on the ballot with a party affiliation. And because of the wide open way in which people are able to register as not just voters, but as candidates, you could put yourself down as the free food candidate, or the less taxes candidate. Or the Reagan Republican candidates. You're going to see consultants go out and spend a lot of money testing messages for what people should be registered as, that will resonate with voters and get votes. It's not going to be about message and policy. It's going to be about the politics of simple communication and persuasion on what you put on a ballot.

Paul Johnson: It is exactly like a city election. In a city election you run in an open primary, all candidates run all voters can vote for them regardless of whether they're Republicans, democrats, or independents and the top two vote getters go to the next level. This does give the voter and the candidate the ability to describe who they are. I think that's a good thing. And I think the voters will also.

Ted Simons: The idea that there's too much gridlock, too much extremism, that there's no cooperation, it's my way or the highway, more so than in the past. First of all, is that valid, secondly.

Ted Simons: How do we address something like that?

Bill Montgomery: Well, I don't think it's valid at the state level. At the state level we've got a balanced budget, we've got 450 million put away in a rainy day fund, more money has gone back into K-12 education and health care, and at the same time, we're the number one entrepreneurial state in the nation, and we're in the top 10 for job growth. If we want to talk gridlock and look at the federal level, this doesn't address that. This addresses more state level races and more county level races than anything else. So I think what we see here is an effort to spin off of voter cynicism, which has existed over 230 years in this country anyway, and try to sell this as a way to address it. You can't change voter behavior by changing the system.

Ted Simons: But is there other voter cynicism now in recent years than there has been in the past?

Bill Montgomery: I think it's cyclical. We've seen it over the course of our nation's political history that we go through those periods of time. When that does occur, I would say that it's the responsibility of parties and candidates for office regardless of the level, to be able to engage voters to be able to have a message, a policy approach that gets them involved. An election system like this can't do that.

Ted Simons: The idea that there is no gridlock, that one party is in control of a state legislature and they're get can their agenda done and they are doing things they think are best for the state, there is no gridlock, there may not be a lot of cooperation, but there is within the party that holds the power the people put them there.

Paul Johnson: Two things. The first I would tell you is this -- the only thing that party politics cares about is who has the majority and who wants the majority. If you have the majority, you block the minority out. If you're the minority, you throw rocks. There's no reason for cooperation. At the federal level, or at the state level. I can tell you also that this does affect the federal level because the congressional running will be affected by an open legislation. At the legislative level, I'm happy to make certain this is what this campaign is about. If you think the way the legislature works is OK, if you like that system, if you like the things they've been doing to this state, this probably isn't your measure. But if you believe as I do, and as many other people do, that this system is failing us, it's failing us in education, it's failing us on economic development, it's failing us on jobs, and it's failing because the two sides aren't willing to listen to one another. I don't really just blame it on one side. I think both sides hold equal fault with not being willing to cross the aisle and to work with one another to address our major issues.

Ted Simons: I know you've described this as an open invitation to disaster as opposed to open government. That being said, why not give it a shot? If it doesn't work, go back to the old system and move on. Why not see if this possibly could work?

Bill Montgomery: Because this is another problem with this is that it's being done through the initiative process, where it has a voter protection act over it. You'd have to go back to voters, spend another million dollars in order to get the signatures to get it back on the ballot to fix it. Experiments in trying to affect voter outcome have failed every single time we've tried it in this state. Previously there wasn't enough of an effort on the part to try to educate the voters or make them aware of what not just the intended consequences were, but the foreseeable consequences. We sought to limit the amount of individual contributions because would it force candidates to talk to more people, engaging voters resulting in more people talking about policy and better candidates. We tried with term limits, because then we would have a turnover. Voters would have to be more effect engaged to find out who the next candidate was. We tried it with clean elections. If we gave people publicly funded money they would have to go out and talk to more people, they wouldn't be so concerned about fund-raising and there would be more candidates running. Then we tried it with the independent redistricting commission. All this talk about competitive districts was supposed to have been resolved with that. That didn't work either. This cannot deliver what it purports to promise.

Ted Simons: Isn't this a case of a party in power likes things the way they are? A party that's not necessarily in power or independent and others say we've got to change something because we got to get it more balanced, we've got to find a way to maneuver and get more of a say and get more cooperation. Isn't that what's going on?

Paul Johnson: Not at all. What you really find is, there are two parts to the party who's in power. The part they want to get rid of, the people who are moderates, the people like the Jack Jewetts and the Burton Barr who for many years made up the major pillars of the Republican party. Clean elections I believe did have some problems. It allowed more extreme people to be you elected -- elected, but to say reforms don't work, giving women the right to vote work the. Also making certain we -- allowed getting rid of -- here's the one that worked the best -- Barry Goldwater. Harry Rosenflag, and Nick Ushuedall went into the city government in the 1940s because we had a corrupt government that didn't work. They implemented an open election and it changed the way the system worked.

Ted Simons: We have to stop it there. Gentlemen, it's good to have you here. Thanks for joining us. We appreciate it.

Paul Johnson:Open Government Act Initiative; Bill Montgomery:Attorney, Maricopa County;

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