Arizona Eagletarian

Arizona Eagletarian

Saturday, October 13, 2012

How far "open" should Arizona primaries be? UPDATED 10:30pm MST 10-14-12

Proposition 121, on the 2012 general election ballot in Arizona, proposes to amend the Arizona Constitution to adopt a Top Two primary election system.  ASU Prof Jennifer Steen wrote up a brief review of the very limited scholarly writing available on similar systems adopted in other states.

Notable points:
What are the likely consequences of adopting a nonpartisan primary (alternatively known as a “top two” or “jungle” primary) in Arizona? Hypotheses abound but empirical analysis has been virtually non-existent, presumably because the nonpartisan primary has not been widely used.
By the way, NO state that has a Clean Elections mechanism for public funding of candidate campaigns has experience with adopting Top Two.

Washington state has a Top Two system, but not Clean Elections. California adopted Top Two and it was first used for its June 2012 primary election. Steen's paper review does not include any info on California's results because no analysis apparently had yet been published in academic publications.

However, California news websites have published initial observations made by political scientists about that state's first election under the new system. San Jose State University political scientist Larry Gerston in August wrote:

So what do we have? For the most part, in the 28 intra-party contests cited above, we see liberal Democrats running against liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans running against conservative Republicans.
None of this suggests a wave of moderation. In only one case, the 15th Congressional District, do we see a pronounced distinction, and that's where moderate Democrat Eric Swalwell is pushing ultra-liberal incumbent Pete Stark. In that radically organized district, the race looks to be tight.
Otherwise, there are major disappointments.
For example, because of those 28 intra-party contests, the second party has been automatically denied a place on the ballot come November. In this sense, party competition has suffered.
A third cost is the waste of the voter's time. Under the "top-two" system, a candidate in a two-person June race who gets a huge majority in June must run off against the same person in November. For example, in the 22nd Congressional District, Republican incumbent Devin Nunes received 70 percent of the vote, while his Democratic challenger Otto Lee won 30 percent. Really, is there any reason to do this again in November?

Do we really expect a different result?
Yes, the reformers sure wanted to change the system, and they have. But whatever the problems with the old method, the new system has set us back a step or two. It's just yet another layer of confusion that Californians don't need. (emphasis added)

Further, in California, in a race pitting two incumbent Democratic Congressmen against each other, both of whom ended up in the Top Two in June, the contentiousness of the primary remains.
The embarrassing moment — captured on video Thursday and splashed across the Internet — unsettled the close contest between Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman and left the two campaigns fighting over what happened in a San Fernando Valley auditorium and why.
The brief altercation between the fellow Democrats speaks to an ever-deteriorating political culture and the tumult created by new California election laws that resulted in a handful of highly charged, same-party runoffs.
Remember the Democratic primary in Arizona's new Ninth Congressional District? It was exceedingly nasty.  

... California's 51st U.S. House District in San Diego? A strongly Democrat[ic] district, the lead candidate, a Democratic state senator, spent nearly $50,000 in support of a penniless Republican opponent to prevent his strongest rival, a fellow Democrat, from making the November election. The ruse worked, and now the Democrat will soundly trounce his Republican opponent in the runoff.
This is just a sample of the manipulations and strategies that are being deployed to game the crapshoot primary. In a number of these races, if fewer candidates had run, the results would have been different. It's a roll of the dice to see who survives. Political party leaders will quickly figure this out and begin discouraging candidates from running to avoid splitting their parties' vote. Political machines will gain even more influence. Such arbitrariness and perverse incentives undermine the legitimacy of the system.
But while the crapshoot primary turned some races into dice rolls, the vast majority of races looked the same as under the old system: no competition at all. Democratic incumbents like Nancy Pelosi and Barbara Lee and GOP incumbents like Darrell Issa and Dana Rohrabacher all finished so far ahead that there's no doubt who will win in November. Most California races at federal and state levels still had no meaningful choices and no competition.

Read more here:

Steen wrote that two papers written (before the first election using the new system) on likely outcomes in Washington state predicted different impact on minority political parties. Election results favored the author who foresaw diminished impact of minority parties (i.e. Libertarian, Green, etc).

She also said that in one paper, 
"advocates of the Top Two primary in Washington argue that having to choose a particular party, even under an open or semi-closed primary, would discourage the growing number of unaffiliated voters from voting. Their claims are not without merit."

Here's a MAJOR point:
"In the sole study of Washington’s nonpartisan primary, Beck and Henrickson (n.d.) argue that 'there is an incentive for the major party organizations to discourage ‘too many’ candidates from entering the primary contest for a particular office with that party's label” (p. 1). They explain, “[The] top two primary system . . . creates the possibility that all of the candidates from one of the major parties might be eliminated in the primary election.... This would be most likely to occur if several candidates with one of the major parties' designation appeared on the primary ballot along with only two candidates of the other major party.'”
In fact, it can be demonstrated with crystal clarity that this is an opening for sinister political operators like the very real Constantin Querard, or John Mills (more about John Mills) or Nathan Sproul or others in their mold, will exploit this as an exceptionally effective method of gaming the system.

The language of Prop 121 provides for a candidate to call him or herself WHATEVER PARTY he or she wants to tell people they belong to. Therefore, regardless of the extent to which a political party is able to discourage candidates from running, rogue operatives like Querard and Mills (both of whom have been linked to fake candidates running for the purpose of diluting opposition votes) will still be able to manipulate the system.

To illustrate this point, let's take a look at the August 28 official primary results for the CD9.

Total votes cast = 87,976

Cherny Dem 11,146
Schapira Dem 11,419
Sinema, Kyrsten Dem 15,536


Powell Gamill (write in) Lib 90

Borowsky Repub 3,281
Schandlbauer Repub 2,139
Grantham Repub 9,179
Parker, Vernon Repub 11,184
Rogers Repub 10,479
Sepulveda Repub 10,165
Thompson Repub 3,358


Vernon Parker and Kyrsten Sinema emerged from the primary as their party's nominees. Under the Top Two system, if these same candidates ran and received the same number of votes, David Schapira and Kyrsten Simema would have been the only two candidates to appear on the general election ballot for this district.

That is despite the FACT that 11,684 MORE votes were cast, in total, for the seven Republican candidates than for the three Democrats.

Under the current system, a candidate not affiliated with a recognized political party can be placed on the general election ballot by obtaining enough nominating petition signatures. That process, of course, would no longer be available under Top Two. 

Steen writes further:
[One study] predicts that general elections will become more competitive, although not because the party nominees will be more moderate, an outcome predicted elsewhere. Rather, in seats that are dominated by one party, “’safe’ incumbents may find themselves facing a November challenge by another candidate from their own party. In this case, the consequence will be to broaden voter choice.” The 2010 election results indicate that this did happen in ten (out of 123) Washington state legislative contests; however, six of them cannot reasonably be deemed “competitive,” as the winner took more than 60 percent of the general-election vote. 

And it did happen in California.

For Arizona, THIS means that in districts where Tea Partisans, for example, are particularly vocal and have access to media (ads and social media/websites), there is ample evidence that the eventual winner will NOT be the "moderate" candidate.

And to restate a most obvious drawback of the Top Two system, as proposed, would dramatically suppress or altogether eliminate use of Clean Elections funding for primary elections. That further emphasizes the influence of Big Money on Arizona elections.

In the event the proposition passes, major revamp of Arizona Revised Statutes Title 16 (Elections and Electors) would be necessary (because the language of the proposition says so, not because I think so). The first such reference in the amended language in the Constitution, "All candidates wishing to run for elective office... shall file... petitions containing the signatures of registered voters in an amount to be established by law..." That's law as amended by the Arizona Legislature. Do you trust them to do a thorough job in addressing this aspect of a revamped primary system?


Make no mistake, Top Two will wreak havoc on Arizona and if passed would take a MINIMUM of four years to reverse by way of any other citizen initiative.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle opponents of Prop 121 have to overcome in the hope the measure fails is the persistent MYTH that "if the political parties hate this proposition, it must be worth voting for..." or, in the alternative, "if the Republicans/Tea Partisans (or, if you prefer, substitute Democrats/Liberals) hate this, then I should probably vote for it."

Both of those notions are irrational, illogical and constitute simply a shortcut so that people do not have to put any thought into figuring out why they do or do not support such a radical change to the Arizona Constitution.

PLEASE do NOT take those shortcuts. Do you want to open our political system up to more radical exploitation from political operatives that would make it more like the inside of a casino than a straightforward way to elect people to represent our values, views and positions in Arizona government and Congress?



Lest any Arizona Eagletarian readers think what Querard or Mills or Sproul do is limited to Arizona (well, we know Sproul is under investigation for criminal activity in other states already), Florida Republican Congressman David Rivera has been making (8-23-12) news for similar reasons lately.

MIAMI -- The FBI is investigating whether a little-known Democratic congressional candidate improperly received thousands of dollars for campaign mailings from Republican U.S. Rep. David Rivera, a senior law enforcement official said Thursday.
At least one of the mailings from Justin Sternad's campaign was critical of the eventual Democratic nominee, Joe Garcia, who has previously tried to unseat Rivera in Florida's 25th congressional district that stretches from suburban Miami to Key West.

Then just a couple of days ago, in a Reuters story:

In a bizarre twist, Rivera is accused of interfering in the Democratic party's August primary by allegedly funneling at least $40,000 in cash to the campaign of a candidate running against Garcia, according to two sources who worked on the campaign.
The money went to pay for campaign mailings backing another virtual unknown, Justin Sternad. An unemployed former hotel worker, Sternad was making his first bid for public office.
Among the mailings, Sternad professed to be an Obama fan while raising questions about Garcia's recent divorce, suggesting he left his wife while she was battling cancer, an accusation the Garcia campaign strongly rejects.
Will Arizona voters be naive enough to believe that Prop 121 will do anything other than make this kind of "bizarre twist" more appealing to desperate politicians.


  1. Where's the proposition to make our elections instant-runoff so we can make our 1st/2nd/3rd choices known and there's no risk of vote splitting?

    1. That's not on this year's ballot. I would support such a measure for the 2014 ballot, should somebody work to gather signatures for it. That is, unless it also undermines Clean Elections. But I support the fundamental concept of Ranked Choice/Instant Runoff.