Friday, November 2, 2012

Yay or Nay: Examining Positives and Negatives of a Top-Two Primary

With all of the attention that has been lavished on dark money pouring into the election system, as well as the voter suppression efforts taking place in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida (and rightfully so), comparatively little attention has been paid to the benefits that early voting has been bringing into this year’s election.

Early voting is such an integral part of our democracy now that President Barack Obama became the first candidate for the office to ever cast his ballot early, doing so in Chicago during a recent stop-over on a cross-country tour promoting his re-election bid.

Here in Arizona, early voting by mail has also had a great benefit, because a voter can sit at home in front of his or her laptop and fill out the various propositions and judicial retentions without feeling rushed in the voting booth, or being forced to bring a slate to the polling place to keep all of their votes straight on each measure.

This ability to carefully measure decisions has done me a world of good as a voter, but there is one proposition in particular that has given me pause. It is Proposition 121, and it has been hotly contested in the state ever since it gathered enough signatures to make an appearance on the ballot. The measure is modeled after the “top-two” primary system that California recently adopted. Basically, instead of having primaries in August with each party fielding a slate of candidates and having registered Republicans and Democrats decide who will represent them on the November ballot, the primary ballot would instead feature every single candidate from every single party for each office, and the top-two vote getters, regardless of party affiliation, would appear on the November ballot.

Naturally, this kind of seismic shift in the way that elections are conducted in the state has been met with a huge amount of both support and opposition. Organizations like the Arizona Republic newspaper and the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce have both come out in support of the bill, and there are a few key reasons as to why there has been so much support of the measure.

For starters, the theory is that the top-two primary would cause candidates to run more moderate campaigns than they are currently running. In today’s Tea Party era, candidates are trying to appeal to more fringe bases of the party that actually turn out to vote in the primaries, and you are seeing the results in places like Delaware, where Christine O’Donnell made a splash in the 2010 Senate race before losing in the general election. You also have long-standing officials like Senator Orrin Hatch, who isn’t exactly a liberal Republican, getting defeated by someone even further to the right than he is politically.

As the dialogue surrounding politics has coarsened, this is surely one of the reasons why, and the potential moderation of candidates could go a long way to making discourse a bit more civil.

The move would also be a practical one for the state of Arizona specifically, as a third of the registered voters in the state are registered independents. They actually outnumber registered Democrats in the state, and despite this, they are being shut out as part of the current electoral system. Instead, they are being stuck with only one chance to express their opinions instead of two, and that seems pretty unfair in a system that is supposed to respect the will of the majority of its citizens, and ignoring the voices of a group that is larger than one of the two major parties seems a bit silly.

Even though those are a couple of pretty compelling reasons to vote for the measure, there are some groups, including the Republican Party of Arizona and the Young Democrats of Arizona, who are opposed to it. The first argument many point to is that a potential consequence could be a smaller number of candidates from each party running in the primary. The reason for this wouldn’t be because of the moderation that we could expect with the bill, but rather because of the fact that each party wouldn’t want to split their vote and potentially risk not having a candidate on the November ballot. That potential hindrance to participation by qualified candidates is definitely something that needs to be weighed carefully, because all the moderation in the world shouldn’t cause less choices, rather than more, for a voter.

Another serious downside would be the negative impact it would have on independent voters. Yes, they would actually get a voice in the August primaries, but they would also have to deal with the fact that there would be significantly less, if not none at all, third party candidates that would make the cut for the November ballot. Candidates from the Green Party and Libertarian Party currently enjoy spots on the ballot alongside Democrats and Republicans, but under this system, they would not be guaranteed that same right to participation in November. That again cuts down on the number of potential choices for voters in the state, and is something to keep in mind.

Proposition 121 is the only measure on my ballot that I have not filled out, and as you can see by the arguments on both sides of the issue, there is a reason for this. This is certainly not a matter of cut and dried political principle for me. I have been in favor of changing election law for years now, including publically financing elections and the re-definition of corporations via Constitutional amendment so that they are not considered “people” , and therefore not eligible to the same rights to free speech (ie donating money) that I am. I have also argued for eliminating the party designations on ballots, so that people can’t just look down a ballot and mark off each person with a D or an R next to their name.

All of those things in mind, you would think that I would have decided to vote for the bill. Even though I am a firm believer that our political discourse needs to be improved, and moderating the types of candidates we end up getting to choose from in November could go a long way toward achieving that goal, I instead find myself voting against Proposition 121. I despise the notion of having two candidates from the same party on the November ballot, because I don’t really consider that much of a choice. To me, it’s like picking between robin’s egg blue and sky blue when choosing a color to paint a room. There isn’t enough of a contrast between the two candidates in that scenario to justify voting for either one of them.

In addition, I like the idea of third parties having more of a voice in the primaries, but I still feel as though they will be overwhelmed by the partisans in this new open primary, and their candidates will not find their way onto the November ballot a good majority of the time. That is bad for our democracy to have limited choices in a manner like that, and in good conscience, I cannot vote for a measure that does that.

In the end, I am going to have to get over my distaste of agreeing with Republican Governor Jan Brewer and the Arizona Republican Party, and I am going to have to vote with my conscience instead of my party affiliation. The electoral process in this state and this country is in need of some serious reform, but this measure is not the way to do that as far as I’m concerned.

Even though I have said that I am planning to vote against this Proposition, I am leaving that part of my ballot unfilled until I leave to drop it off at the polling place on Tuesday morning. If you think that I am overlooking a potentially decision-changing argument for this bill, feel free to comment on this piece, or to yell at me via phone, Twitter, or Facebook. I am all about changing my opinion when more compelling evidence is presented against it, so you have four days to impress me with your ferocity and intellect.

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