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Bipartisan group hopes to put open primaries on the 2024 ballot in Arizona

A bipartisan group hoping to do away with Arizona’s partisan primary elections officially launched their campaign to qualify for the 2024 ballot on Tuesday. The group wants to create open primaries, where voters can select any candidate, regardless of party affiliation. 

Organizer Beau Lane, who’s run in previous years as a Republican, says the current primary system discourages real debate and compromise, advancing only extreme candidates to the general election.

“Way too often, November voters are faced with choosing the lesser of two evils and feeling a lot of discontent, and our research shows … immense discontent with the choices of today,” he said.

Most Arizona elections are effectively decided in primary elections, particularly legislative races in districts that lean far to the right or left. But primaries have lower turnout than general elections, and independents can’t participate unless they request a ballot for a specific party. 

Independent candidates must also collect more signatures than Democrat or Republican candidates to make it on the ballot. Yet most of Arizona’s voters are either independent or unaffiliated — not Republicans and Democrats.

Make Elections Fair AZ thinks that plurality is left out of the primary process. 

To qualify for the ballot, they’ll need to collect 383,923 signatures by July 3. 

A second group interested in throwing out the partisan primary system is also trying to get their measure on the ballot. But they haven’t yet launched their campaign. 

Organizer and former Democratic Attorney General Terry Goddard said he expects the two groups will eventually merge into one and work together to get the Make Elections Fair AZ group’s proposal on the ballot.

Republican lawmakers already sent a competing measure to the ballot that, if approved next year, would protect the current partisan primary system. The sponsor of that legislation, Rep. Austin Smith, R-Wittman, could not be reached for comment.

Goddard says the current system doesn’t produce the best candidates, and claims polling and research shows open primaries produce more popular candidates.

“I’ve been through that process more times than I like to count and I'm not saying they never work. Occasionally you get a high quality candidate on both sides competing in the general election for the voters. Occasionally it snows in Phoenix,” Goddard said. 

Karrin Taylor Robson
Karrin Taylor Robson

Had Arizona used an open primary system in 2022, Lane says gubernatorial candidate Karrin Taylor Robson — considered a more moderate, establishment GOP candidate — would have beat far-right candidate Kari Lake in the Republican primary, and that Taylor Robson would have gone on to beat current Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs.

That message may not appeal to Democrats, who finally captured the governor’s office for the first time since former Gov. Janet Napolitano served from 2003 to 2009.

But Paul Johnson, a former Democrat and former Phoenix mayor, said he still thinks Democrat voters can get behind this measure because the Taylor Robson who may have been elected would have been a different person than the one who ran in 2022.

“It wouldn’t have been the exact same Karrin Taylor because she’d have been listening to a different group of people. You can’t help it when you run in a primary where everybody gets the chance to vote for you. You can’t help but begin to listen to them,” Johnson said.

For example, Johnson pointed to Alaska, where voters approved an overhaul of the state’s elections in 2020. Johnson said that in Alaska’s old system, the top campaign issues were matters like who can use what bathrooms, abortion and election denial. Now, he said the main issues are transportation, education and economic development. 

“If you focus on divisive issues that’s going to be what you're going to get. Those issues that we’re never going to find agreement on. But there are a whole bunch of issues that are being left in the background,” Johnson said.

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Camryn Sanchez is a field correspondent at KJZZ covering everything to do with state politics.