Vote 2014: Independent Voters

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The number of independent voters participating in this year’s primary election in Maricopa County could double. That is causing Republican Party officials concern, because many independents are choosing to vote on the Republican ticket. Hank Stephenson of the Arizona Capitol Times will discuss his story on the issue.

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

Ted Simons: Lawyers for attorney general attorney tried to convince a judge to stop an investigation of Horne by the Arizona clean elections commission. The commission is checking into allegations that Horne used state personnel and resources to work on his reelection campaign. Horne filed a lawsuit last month in an effort to block the investigation. Horne's lawyers claim that the case is under the jurisdiction of the secretary of state's office and thus the clean elections commission has no authority to investigate.

Ted Simons: Well, the state Republican party officials are expressing increasing concern over what looks to be a significant increase in the number of independent voters participating in this year's GOP primary election. Here to talk about those concerns and talk of closing the primary system by the election is Hank Stephenson of "The Arizona Capitol Times." Good to see you again. And great job on this, I know you wrote about this, that's why we got you here. Are independents increasingly going Republican side for this primary?

Hank Stephenson: I think they don't have much of a choice. If you're look at the Democratic or the Republican ballot, statewide elections you've got one contested primary on the Democratic side. Whereas on the Republican side, you've got a host of options, from governor attorney general -- Attorney general on down the ticket. So, yes, they're going overwhelmingly for the GOP ballot, but I don't think that's a surprise given the dynamics of the two different primaries.

Ted Simons: So with that not being so much of a surprise, still, Republicans are concerned.

Hank Stephenson: Yeah. And I think the big part of this is that independent voters are turning out much more this year. We're already seeing some initial numbers, and it's hard to get these to apples to apples, but it's clear that the number of independents voting in the primary is going to spike this year, it could be two, three times as much here in Maricopa County or the county recorder has been doing education efforts, trying to dispel this widespread rumors that independents can't vote in the primary election.

Ted Simons: And again, Republicans are concerned because according to the party officials here, what they're saying is it has a moderating influence on the Republican party.

Hank Stephenson: Yeah. They're looking at guys like Steve Smith who is running for mayor -- Sorry, the mayor of Mesa running for governor, who's just a moderate Republican who they think is going to be winning overwhelmingly by the turnout of independents. If he goes on to win the election. It will be due to the independent influence in the election.

Ted Simons: Are there other races of concern or is this -- The governor's race is the one they're looking at?

Hank Stephenson: That's the one where you've got a big field of six candidates, are running to the right, pretty much party platform down the line. And Scott Smith is the only one who's breaking that mold, who's siding with governor Jan Brewer on a host of issues, common core, Medicaid expansion. And that's the one that has people like Maricopa County GOP chair worried about independents nominating them through the GOP to run on the general election ballot.

Ted Simons: I guess they don't want another situation like they had in Mississippi where they were recording democrats in the open primary. The idea I guess for Republicans is they could be closed or at least limited to Republicans.

Hank Stephenson: Yeah. And right now independents have the ability to choose a ballot. You can choose the Democratic ballot or the Republican ballot. You always hear these rumors that moderate Republicans are urging democrats to reregister as independents, and vote in the GOP primary. You know, I can't find any truth to those rumors necessarily but it's one of those things that has Republican loyals very worried, that that could have an influence on who gets nominated as the Republican candidate.

Ted Simons: How worried are they? I'm hearing now talk of trying to get maybe the legislature to do something before the election, to close the primary. What is going on here?

Hank Stephenson: There's an increasing conversation about this. Both at the state level and here in Maricopa County, the party has passed resolutions saying we should close down our primaries to not allow independents to vote in the GOP primary. That's kind of getting a backlash from a lot of people who say if we don't have independents voting in the Republican primary, we're relying on them come the general election to boost our candidate up over the 50% mark. If they don't have a say in the Republican primary, what incentive is there for them to go out and vote for a Republican in November?

Ted Simons: I was going to say, independents could turn around and say you're going to need us one way or another.

Hank Stephenson: They're the largest voting block in Arizona, outnumbers democrats and Republicans. It's changing the way campaigns are run.

Ted Simons: I'm hearing talk of a caucus system. You talk about closed, this is closed within closed. Wouldn't that alienate rank and file Republican voters? Obviously independents as well, but if you go to a caucus system where precinct committeemen and chair people are the only ones going -- Deciding on candidates, that doesn't sound that inclusive.

Hank Stephenson: Yeah, it's interesting because there are a handful of ideas floating out there about how to do this caucus system is one of them. Nobody has nailed down what the best method is, but that's probably as closed as you can get where you're having the precinct commit men, the people with the time and the inclination to be heavily involved in the party, just handpicking the nominees for the Republican side for November. It would lead to more likely than not a very strong conservative candidates which I think a lot of people want to see, but I think the middle of the road, Arizona residents are going to have a hard time agreeing with the most loyal Republican party faithful.

Ted Simons: Not only that, it wouldn't reflect the electorate for the Republican Party. You've got lots of folks that are Republicans that may not agree with their precinct chair people.

Hank Stephenson: Exactly. I think that's going to be a big pushback against this idea. But so far both the Maricopa County and the state party has passed resolutions endorsing this idea, whether it's a caucus system or whether it's just allowing Republican voters to have a say in the GOP primary.

Ted Simons: As far as turnout is concerned, how much do independents usually turn out in primaries, and again, from what you said, we're seeing a big change this go-around.

Hank Stephenson: Yeah. Usually it's abysmally low, around 7%, where maybe the average is 28% statewide turnout in a primary. Independents just don't show up. A lot of that goes back to the misconception that they cannot vote in primary elections. Independents have to request a ballot from the county recorders whereas if you're on the permanent early voting list as a democrat or Republican you're automatically sent a ballot. This year we're already seeing signs that this is going to be spiking hugely. There are about , independents in Maricopa County alone who have requested early ballots already. About , of those are Republicans, are independents requesting Republican ballots. And by comparison, if you're looking at just early voting numbers in the election, you had about ,, , independents asking for Republican ballots. So that's an easy doubling, we could see it continue to increase as they have until Friday to request a ballot. And independents can go to the polls on election day, which is a huge point.

Ted Simons: They go to the poll, ask you which one you want, you tell them and make your decisions. Where are democrats in all this? I ask this because in the end, do democrats want more moderate Republicans on the ballot challenging their candidates?

Hank Stephenson: Yeah, there's a couple different thoughts on that. One idea is democrats have for years kept their candidates to a minimum. They don't have contentious primaries in the state that allows them to get an early head start on the general election in November. Some of them think maybe we should let the Republican party just close down their ballot, their primary, and our candidates will have a much easier time collecting the majority of votes come November versus you know, what is likely to be the most conservative candidate that could be chosen from the Republican field, that's what the P.C.s are going to nominate.

Ted Simons: It's interesting because you hear from democrats, some of them think Scott Smith, that would be great, and others say no, it wouldn't be because it would hurt their candidate.

Hank Stephenson: Exactly. Scott Smith, Fred Duval matchup would be tough for democrats to win, whereas if an Al Melvin who has already dropped out, or one of the more extreme conservative candidates is put up as the Republican nominee, democrats are really hoping that something like that happens and gives them a chance to win at least statewide office like that.

Ted Simons: Last question -- It seems as though historically independents oddly enough, show an independent streak when it comes to voting. You never really know where independents are going to go. That still has to be into play.

Hank Stephenson: Yeah, absolutely. Independents is not a party. There is no party ideology, it's people who don't align with the Democratic party or the Republican party. Or who just want to declare their independents. But there are some things we can say about independents. By registering as an independent you're declaring yourself independent. So they go for like-minded candidates. Candidates willing to break their party's platform, whether it be on the Democratic or Republican side. That's the usual thinking about independents and for some, to some degree we're seeing polls not necessarily totally scientific, that back that. That they are going overwhelmingly for Mr. Smith in the Republican primary.

Ted Simons: Interesting. All right, good stuff. Good story. Thanks for being here.

Hank Stephenson: Thanks for having me, Ted.

Hank Stephenson:Journalist, Arizona Capitol Times;

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