Mostly, Arizona’s general election vote offers only a muffled anti-climax when it comes to picking state lawmakers.
That’s because most lawmakers run in districts with such lopsided party registration that once they win the partisan primary, the general election is a foregone conclusion.
But that all changes if voters ultimately approve a plan to let voters cast a ballot in any primary they want — regardless of their party registration.
Arizona Open Government has so far collected 100,000 of the 259,000 signatures it needs to let voters in November decide on a constitutional amendment that would let registered voters pick which primary they want to vote in.
Such a measure might produce far more competitive elections — and less polarized politics, according to an analysis by the Morrison Institute, a think tank affiliated with Arizona State University.
The state’s electorate is now almost evenly divided between Republicans, Independents and Democrats.
Independents recently overtook Democrats as the largest “party.” If present trends continue, Independents will outnumber Republicans in another year or two. However, Independents have to ask for a ballot in the primary and Independent candidates must gather far more signatures to get on the ballot — which has so far given the two established parties a lock on the Legislature.
Currently, only a handful of the state’s 30 legislative districts have sufficiently balanced voter registration that either a Democrat or a Republican could win the seat. As a result, most contests are decided in the primaries. That’s why many incumbents run unopposed in the primary and easily win the general election.
For instance, Payson sits in the newly drawn Congressional District 4, where Republicans have an almost two-to-one advantage over Democrats. As a result, the Republican primary will likely decide the seat.
Payson also sits in state Legislative District 6, where Republicans have a nearly 10 percent advantage. That gives Republicans an edge over Democrats, but the huge number of Independents has produced enough balance that the general election may prove to be hotly contested.
The Morrison Institute report documented the lack of competition created by the current system in the state’s 30 legislative districts. The virtual exclusion of Independent voters and the lopsided party registrations in most districts combine to turn primary elections into low-turnout affairs, concluded Morrison Institute Senior Research Fellow David Berman.
On average, only about 24 percent of registered voters turn out for primaries, compared to about 60 percent in general elections. As a result, a relative handful of the most active voters from each party cast the decisive vote in deciding who runs the state.
“Party primaries have been low turnout affairs and the relatively few who do show up tend to be from the opposite ends of the ideological scale. Because of this, nominees tend to be far more ideological than those who generally identify with either of the major parties or the voters in the general election,” Berman concluded.
The report offered the following statistics on the 2010 state legislative elections:
• 23 Legislative seats of the 60 House and 30 Senate posts were uncontested in the general election.
• 12 of the House seats were uncontested.
• 11 of the Senate seats were uncontested.
• 36 of the 60 House primaries had uncontested primary races.
• 7 of the House primaries drew no candidates at all, usually because one party had a nearly guaranteed general election victory.
• 46 of the 60 Senate primaries were uncontested.
• 11 of the Senate primary races had no candidate.
“The end result as far as the state Legislature is concerned is to encourage both gridlock and extremism and to contribute to the failure of lawmakers to produce to the satisfaction of the majority of Arizonans,” Berman concluded.
He noted that other states have experimented with changes in primaries to increase turnout, involve Independents and reduce polarization.
Some states use an open primary system, like the proposal Arizona Open Government hopes to put on the ballot in November.