PHOENIX – Voters on Tuesday rejected a ballot measure to do away with Arizona’s partisan primary system in favor of open primaries advancing top vote-getters regardless of party.
Unofficial returns showed Proposition 121 trailing by a wide margin.
Arizona currently holds primaries for state and federal offices in which each political party selects a candidate – or candidates in certain races – to run in the general election.
Proposition 121 supporters noted that many districts, particularly in the state Legislature, lean heavily toward one major party. That means those races are essentially decided in primaries with low turnouts, leading to many officeholders with extremist views, they said.
Changing to open primaries, supporters said, would have led to moderate officials because primary candidates would have to appeal to a broader audience.
Paul Johnson, a leader of the Open Government Committee that was advocating for the proposition, placed most of the blame for the defeat on a large influx of money from Americans for Responsible Leadership. The obscure nonprofit contributed $600,000 to Save Our Vote, the group opposing Proposition 121.
But Johnson remained hopeful for the future of the idea of open primaries, if not the proposition itself.
“This measure started organically,” he said. “I don’t see this as two years of my work. I see this as an obligation that we all have to a lifetime worth of work to try to begin to make this better.”
Supporters also said the change would have leveled the playing field for independent candidates, who currently have to obtain far more signatures to qualify for the general election than those in political parties need to qualify for primaries.
Opponents included the Libertarian and Green parties, who said the change would have essentially banished them from general elections and raised signature requirements that would make it more difficult to quality for primaries.
For the Republican and Democratic parties, opponents argued, the change could have meant general election races featuring candidates from only one party.
The state GOP registered its opposition to Proposition 121. The Arizona Democratic Party didn’t take a formal stand but made its views clear.
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, the public face of Save Our Vote, used a pop culture reference to give his take on the outcome.
“You can see that voters followed suit on The Who’s ‘We Won’t Got Fooled Again,’” he quipped. “It shows that you can’t hijack the signatures, and voters will have the final say.”
Montgomery was referring to the contentious road to the ballot for Proposition 121, which included the Arizona Supreme Court deciding whether supporters had gathered enough signatures to qualify.
Other states with open primaries similar to those proposed by Proposition 121 are California, which made the change in 2010, as well as Washington, Louisiana and Nebraska.
The primary source of financing for Save Our Vote generated controversy as well: An obscure Phoenix-based nonprofit, Americans for Responsible Leadership, had at last report contributed $600,000 but filed with the IRS in a way that meant it didn’t have to disclose where it got the money.
The board of Americans for Responsible Leadership, which listed a post office box as an address, includes several Valley businessmen and Kirk Adams, former state House speaker and an unsuccessful GOP congressional candidate.
Proposition 121 supporters complained that the so-called dark money prevented voters from knowing who wanted the measure to fail.
Americans for Responsible Leadership also had contributed $925,000 at last report to the campaign against Proposition 204 in Arizona and $11 million to a conservative group leading campaigns in California for one ballot measure and against another.
The Open Government Committee had raised $1.33 million at last report, though leaders said much of that money went toward the legal battles that got Proposition 121 on the ballot. Leading donors included $141,500 from Greater Phoenix Leadership and $100,000 from Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona, according to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office.