Typography

Elections in rural Arizona are odd creatures.

On the local level, city and town elections are by law nonpartisan affairs, meaning voters must choose from a slate of candidates, whose names appear on ballots sans the familiar R, D, L or G behind their name, indicating their political party affiliation.


Instead, voters must learn about their stance on issues from their websites, policy statements, debates, forums or by profile stories in their local newspapers. Voters pick leaders, not stand-ins for their party.

How novel — leaders are chosen by who they are as individuals and what they plan to do if elected … too bad the Founding Fathers enshrined our two-party process under article number … oh wait, they didn’t. The Constitution makes no mention of political parties and the Founding Fathers had no intention of creating a partisan system. It wasn’t until 1796 with the emergence of the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans — now referred to as the First Party System — that two rival, dominant parties began to coalesce.

Above local jurisdictions, party affiliation is included on ballots. In parts of rural Arizona where only one party fields candidates, partisanship often determines who runs and who wins primaries, almost guaranteeing one-party dominance, currently Republicans in Northern Arizona and Democrats in the south.

The first primary election didn’t exist until 1831, but now parties use them to select their nominees. Seventeen states hold “open primaries” in which all the state’s voters can choose from all of the candidates running for a seat.

Arizona has a semi-open primary process, which means independent and “other” voters can register for one party’s ballot in the primary day and cast votes for candidates of that party.

The constitutionality of open and closed primaries is sketchy in both directions. Courts say closed primaries are protected freedom of association, which was ruled an implicit part of the First Amendment in 1958. Closed primaries keep freedom of association intact by allowing members of a freely-joined association to select their own candidates for office.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled state laws mandating both open and closed primaries unconstitutional, but the high court has never specifically ruled on the constitutionality of primaries themselves.

While closed or semi-open primaries allow party members to pick candidates who adhere to their platforms, the downside is that if a primary winner doesn’t face a challenger in the general election, voters are essentially disenfranchised because they did not vote for nor against them due to the primary process.

In many races, the primary election on Tuesday, Aug. 30, will decide who wins a particular seat. Roughly 34 percent of Arizona voters will have no chance to decide on their leaders.

Mathematically, candidates who win 51 percent in tight primaries could be elected by as little as 26 percent of the people who vote on election day.

It also means voters often get elected officials on the fringes of the political spectrum chosen by a minority of voters rather than moderates chosen by the electorate at large.

Open primary advocates argue that because taxpayer funds are used to run primaries, all taxpaying voters should be able to vote. However, a proposed change to an top-two primary election failed in 2012 and no changes are planned in the near future.

An open primary or top-two process would guarantee that those whom we elect sincerely represent the majority, as our republic was designed.

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