Nebraska Open Primary Report

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Since 1934, Nebraska has elected its state legislature through a non-partisan “top two” primary system, with the result being progressive reforms in a state that is 71% republican. The group Open Primaries has a new report on the Nebraska system titled “The Myth of the Red State.” Patrick McWhortor, the Arizona campaign director for Open Primaries, will discuss the new report and how it might apply to efforts aimed at reforming Arizona’s elections.

TED SIMONS: Coming up next on "Arizona Horizon," an election system in Nebraska could be a role model for reforms in Arizona. Also tonight, a look at what it takes to get LEED certification for buildings. And check out a local charity that provides medical care to a remote part of the world. Those stories next on "Arizona Horizon."

VIDEO: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the Friends of Eight, members of your Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

TED SIMONS: Good evening and welcome to "Arizona Horizon," I'm Ted Simons. Nebraska elects its state legislature through a non-partisan top two primary system. It's been that way since 1934, with the results allowing for progressive reforms in a state that is 71% Republican. A group called Open Primaries is out with a new report on Nebraska's elections system. The report is titled "The Myth of The Red State." Joining us now is Patrick McWhortor, the open primaries Arizona campaign director, and John Opdyke, the president of Open Primaries. Good to have you both here, thanks for joining us.

PATRICK MCWHORTOR: Great to be here Ted.

TED SIMONS: Explain the title, the myth of the red state.

PATRICK MCWHORTOR: Well, you know, Nebraska is seen in national circles as being a pretty conservative place. 71% of the legislators in Nebraska are Republican. But, in fact, the way those legislators make policy for the people of Arizona is very different than what you would expect maybe in other states that have similar Republican majorities.

TED SIMONS: And thus the myth, let's talk about what they do in Nebraska, how exactly does that election system work?

JOHN OPDYKE: Well, as you referenced in the '30s the people of Nebraska enacted via ballot referendum a completely non-partisan legislature. The members of the legislature are elected in nonpartisan open primaries, they don't even list their party affiliation on the ballot. They go to a nonpartisan unicameral legislature where there are no party caucuses. Each member is free to hold hearings and so forth and what we've seen after decades of doing this is that what happens in Nebraska is that interesting new coalitions can come together on the issues. Whether it's raising the minimum wage or dealing with immigration reform or raising the gas tax for infrastructure. Democrats, Republicans and independents can come together because they're not constrained by a party structure.

TED SIMONS: Indeed the report is it's generally free of strong-arm partisan politics.

PATRICK MCWHORTOR: Yes, it's really interesting, when they organize themselves after each election, the leadership of the legislature, the committee chairs of the legislature are all chosen based upon who would make the most sense as the leader, as the chair of that committee. In fact, the majority of the committee chairs are Democrats. So it really is about doing the people's business, which we believe most people want out of their elected officials.

TED SIMONS: Is this something particular to Nebraska? I mean, this is a state without too many large cities, it's a rural obviously agricultural state. Can that mitt in an urban state or in a southwestern state?

PATRICK MCWHORTOR: There are two other states that have a system of electing people in a nonpartisan primary election and that is Washington and California. California was the most recent to create it and they had it for two election cycles, and it's having quite an impact on the way that lawmakers behaving at the state capitol in California.

TED SIMONS: You mentioned a unicameral legislature, that's not like most places at all. How does that play into the dynamic? If you've got one single body as opposed to two separate bodies that half the time are fighting with each other, I mean again you look at Arizona, that looks like an awful difficult transition.

JOHN OPDYKE: Well, it is and the unicameral is very unique in Nebraska, and it's something that I don't think is on the agenda in too many states around the country, though I frankly think it should be. The bicameral legislature works to insulate the parties from the people because they know how to do an old switcheroo. The lower house votes for something knowing that the upper house will veto it and it allows for all kinds of shenanigans, which is one of the reasons they got rid of it in in the 30s.

TED SIMONS: We've talked about here about partisanship. There are those who say it isn't a bad thing, that partisanship can mean accountability in a variety of ways. Valid?

PATRICK MCWHORTOR: Parties have almost since the beginning of the nation had a political system. The question is how much of a role should they be allowed to write the rules? To actually create the election system in such a way that the parties have an advantage over really what's best for the majority of the people regardless of party? You know, our mantra at open primaries is nobody should be required to join a political party in order to exercise their right to vote. The fact is with the primary election system that we have in Arizona, that most states have but they don't have in Nebraska for the legislature, it's the party that controls the system and it takes away the rights of citizens as citizens.

TED SIMONS: Is it necessary to reduce the power of the parties? These are groups of like-minded, folks. They're going to go ahead and elect likeminded candidates.

JOHN OPDYKE: Well, yes and that's the appropriate role for a political party. If you talk to the chairman of the Democratic Party of Nebraska, he says we should absolutely keep the nonpartisan system here, it helps the Democratic Party because they have an easier time recruiting candidates who know that they're not going to run as sacrificial lambs. They have a chance of getting elected and once elected, doing something in the legislature.

TED SIMONS: When you have the top two primary, whatever you want to call it here, the critics will say it's likely that you're going to wind up in many districts with two Republicans running against each other as opposed to giving a Democrat a chance, giving a small party, green, libertarian, take your pick, a chance. They're saying the small parties, they're shut out of something like this.

PATRICK MCWHORTOR: We've been traveling all over the state listening to the people of Arizona and finding out whether they are ready to invest in election reform and here's what I can tell you. They are frustrated, actually, they're angry, that their leaders, their elected officials are not responding to the issues that are important to them. The number one issue in Arizona by far is education and we know how the legislature is addressing or not addressing education right now, responding to what the public wants. If you have an election system in the primary where every candidate has to face every voter, Republican, Democrat, independent, I mean of all stripes, it's much more likely they're going to respond to what matters to those voters than the system we have now where you have this very low turnout in a primary election, and it's only the people in your party that you're addressing, and that's why we have a legislature today that is not addressing the education issue. That doesn't happen in Nebraska. In Nebraska, they do the people's business.

TED SIMONS: There are those who say that if you have a disciplined party, you can still game the system, shenanigans, that word, that can still happen, even in the open primary. Basically, there are ways to strengthen parties even under this system.

JOHN OPDYKE: Of course. I mean, no system is a cure-all. There is no magic bullet to bringing about a perfect political equilibrium. But if you saw this week that the Republican chairman of the Arizona GOP, Robert Graham, issued a press release with all kinds of false and misleading allegations against Paul Johnson, the local leader of the open primaries movement and you have to ask yourself why is the chairman of the Republican party so threatened? Why is he looking to discredit an emerging reform movement? And the reason is that they do not want Arizonans from a wide variety of backgrounds and politics coming together to address exactly what Patrick is talking about, the fact that the will of the people goes unaddressed in the state. The GOP has a very bad record on democracy issues here in Arizona.

TED SIMONS: But you also have many Democrats who don't like this idea, either. It's not just Republicans. Party faithful don't like something that reduces the power of the party.

PATRICK MCWHORTOR: Well, and party faithful being those who are very active in the party but if you talk to people who are registered Democrats, registered Republicans and are people that are everyday, trying to make a living and get their kids through school, those folks, at the end of the day, while they may be registered with the party, they want their elected officials to solve the problems that are facing their state. Those folks are with us. When we are in a room with those folks, they get why open primaries is an important idea, why people need to take their democracy back from the party.

TED SIMONS: We had a vote on this, something similar to this a few years ago and it just got trounced at the polls. It sounded like those who voted didn't like the idea. What happened?

PATRICK MCWHORTOR: In 2012 when this was on the ballot there was not a lot of the work we're doing now in terms of really bringing people along and educating them. It was, you know, many people I think thought this was a very sensible good government reform, this should be easy to get passed and didn't get the message out there. So what the people heard and then the other thing by the way there was a late $2 million campaign against the proposition that created a lot of confusion in voters' minds and they voted no because they didn't understand it, that's a good thing for voters to do. So you know, I think what we're doing now in trying to listen to people, what their issues are and see if election reform is the answer for them, that's what will make the difference.

TED SIMONS: And around the country, what are you seeing around country as far as results? Obviously, we see what's happening in Nebraska but that seems like an outlier in a lot of ways. What are you seeing in California, Washington, I know Louisiana has an open election as opposed to an open primary. What are you seeing?

JOHN OPDYKE: California used to be the most noncompetitive state in the entire country. There were three incumbents defeated in the entire decade of 2000 to 2010. Fast forward to 2014, under the new nonpartisan system, it's the number one competitive state in the country, it's been a complete reversal. There is a different legislative environment there, independent voters, the fastest-growing segment of voters are now included and the policy implications are very significant. They're doing all kinds of new innovative things at the legislative level and we're seeing people, activists, legislators, business leaders, from the left, right, center, all over the country who are looking at California, looking at Nebraska, looking at Washington and saying we need to bring this to our state.

TED SIMONS: All right, well thank you for joining us and helping us look at it, as well. Thank you for being here. We appreciate it.

PATRICK MCWHORTOR: Thank you very much.

Patrick McWhortor: The Arizona campaign director for Open Primaries,John Opdyke:The President of open Primaries

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