Failed top-two primary measure had most support among independent voters

Mapping the Vote is a collaboration between the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting and the Arizona Capitol Times. The project included a precinct-level analysis of Arizona election data. Unless otherwise noted, you can republish these stories for free if you follow these rules.

By Evan WylogeArizona Capitol Times

Had voters passed the Open Elections/Open Government measure, proponents argued that the result would have been less-radical ideologues being elected and a looser grip by political parties on elected offices.

That concept appealed to voters not affiliated with any party more than to registered Republicans and Democrats, election data reveals. The most enthusiastic opposition showed itself in areas where Republicans are most numerous.

According to a joint analysis by the Arizona Capitol Times and theArizona Center for Investigative Reporting, precincts with a greater proportion of non-party affiliated voters were more likely to support the measure than precincts with greater partisan affiliation.

About $1 million was spent promoting the ballot measure, which would have allowed the top two primary vote getters to move to a general election regardless of party. Despite that, partisan opposition overwhelmed the support among independent voters, causing the measure to lose by a two-to-one margin.

Aaron Baer, a spokesman for the anti-Prop. 121 campaign, said he’s not surprised by what the numbers show.

“That tracks with what we saw in our polling during the election,” he said.

Non-party and registration other than Republican or Democratic composition of a precinct (vertical axis) and the vote percentage for Proposition 121 (horizontal axis) for the precinct.

Baer said the anti-Prop. 121 campaign was strengthened by the fact that prominent elected officials from both sides of the aisle voiced their opposition.

Democrats such as Sen. Steve Gallardo and Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox joined with Republican rivals like Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery and U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl to advocate against the measure.

They argued that the proposed system, while it may take away power from the political parties, would give greater chances to anyone with lots of money or to those who might coordinate several sham candidates to fracture electorates.

Baer said the Republican and Democratic party structure made it easier to communicate with partisan voters.

Paul Johnson, a former Phoenix mayor and co-chairman of the Prop. 121 campaign committee, agreed with Baer that elected officials coming out against the measure meant partisan voters were more likely to hear the opposition message.

“We had almost no candidates outwardly supporting it,” Johnson said. “They were, for the most part, afraid of it.”

Johnson said the fear was at least partly derived from the fact that a stronger party structure helped them get elected.

Johnson acknowledged that such a conundrum will always present an uphill battle for a top-two proposal, since part of its underlying premise is to weaken the party structure.

A look at the dropoff between the top of the tickets (the presidential candidates) and the Prop. 121 vote showed that precincts with higher Republican composition were also more likely to vote on the proposition. That was similarly not surprising to Johnson.

“They’re the majority party. They control the game,” Johnson said.

Supporters of the measure have been researching for what went wrong with the campaign and why it lost, but Johnson said one thing is clear: Not enough advance groundwork was done on the campaign to bring elected officials into the fold. He said such work could have helped it gain more support.

Things may have gone differently if the campaign for a top-two system could have spent years building support among elected officials by demonstrating that independent voters feel disenfranchised by the two-party dominance — and that they can deliver a true voting bloc.

Johnson promised that he would bring back some similar election reform in the future and that he would plan to find ways to reach out to established torch bearers.

“We are going to come back,” Johnson said. “I can’t tell you when, but I can tell you we are coming back.”