Group gathering signatures to end partisan primary

PHOENIX -- State voters may get a chance to minimize the role of political parties in future elections.

An initiative launched Tuesday would scrap the current system where those affiliated with each party choose the nominees for statewide, congressional, legislative and local office. Instead, all candidates would run in a single primary, with the top two vote-getters in each race facing off in the general election, even if both are from the same party.

Backers have until July 25 to get the required 259,213 valid signatures to put the plan, which already has been adopted in Washington and California, on the 2012 ballot.

The prime force behind the measure is former Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson who, when he was a registered Democrat, made an unsuccessful bid for governor in 1998. Johnson contends the current system does not work.

Part of the problem, he said, is that about a third of Arizonans are not registered with either party. In fact, there are now more independents in the state than Democrats.

If nothing else, Johnson said that is "a vote of the public that they no longer have confidence in the two parties.' That includes Johnson who said he is now a registered independent.

And while independents can vote in either the Republican or Democratic primaries, most do not.

But that exodus from the parties, Johnson said, creates a bigger problem.

"They're leaving a more distilled, ideologically pure voter in either camp which now tend to elect people based on their own ideological purity,' he said. The result, said Johnson, is that those from both parties who hope to get the nomination must court the votes of those on the "extremes.'

Johnson said a nonpartisan primary would force candidates to appeal more to the political center.

He said one prime example of that is playing out right now in the recall effort against Senate President Russell Pearce.

The east Mesa district he has represented since the 2000 election currently has 70,415 registered voters. More than 38 percent are Republicans, with independents making up another 34 percent and most the balance being Democratic. And like most legislative districts where one party dominates, that has meant whoever wins that party's primary tends to get elected in November.

But the recall means there will be what is shaping up to be a single three-way race, with all of the district's registered voters, regardless of party registration, getting to choose among Pearce, Jerry Lewis and Olivia Cortes, all Republicans. Johnson said that is forcing Pearce to appeal to more than the hard-core GOP base that elected him in the past.

"It was very noticeable to many people that the very first piece of mail he put out focused solely on economic development and said not a word about illegal immigration,' Johnson said. "The reason for that is, he's fighting to get the center back.'

Johnson said the same thing takes place in cities, most of which already have nonpartisan elections.

The initiative, if approved by voters, would allow candidates to continue to declare their party affiliation. That means voters would know which contenders identify themselves as Republicans and which want voters to know they are Democrats.

And Johnson acknowledged that could still result in highly partisan runoffs, like the current race for mayor in Phoenix between Democrat Greg Stanton and Republican Wes Gullett.

But he said the fact that the race is, at least officially, nonpartisan makes it easier for people to look at the candidates individually and cross party lines. Johnson said that's why he, as a former Democrat, can openly back Gullett and why former Phoenix Mayor Skip Rimsa, a Republican, can back Stanton.

Andrei Cherny, chairman of the Arizona Democratic Party, agreed that party affiliation would continue to mean something, even in a nonpartisan race. He said that, at least for some, those labels are important because they provide a shortcut for voters to determine a candidate's general philosophical bent.

"A lot of people support Greg Stanton because they know he's a Democrat and that's a signal to them about what he fights for,' Cherny said. "And lots of people support Wes Gullett because of his credentials as a Republican.'

The idea drew a chilly reaction from Thayer Verschoor, chief of staff of the Arizona Republican Party.

"The initiative is nothing more than an attempt to manipulate an electoral process that has historically proven itself to work well by having voters decide on the best quality and most representative candidate using popularly embraced guiding principles,' he said in a prepared statement.

Cherny said he remains receptive to the idea, though he wants to study the details of how it would work.

"Anything that's going to support more mainstream leaders and less of the extreme leaders we see running the show right now is a good thing,' he said. Yet Cherny insisted that the extremists are all on the other side of the political spectrum.

"I wouldn't say that we have any true extremists in the Democratic Party,' he said.


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