March 2024
Turning Down the Heat in Phoenix
RCV Promises Consensus Candidates; Independent Voters Get a Fair Shake

This year an initiative is moving toward the ballot designed to reduce the influence of extreme partisanship and give us more moderate, consensus lawmakers in Phoenix. There will also be maneuvers to prevent that from happening.

The Make Elections Fair Arizona initiative would give independents an even chance to compete in elections and make it less likely that our final ballots will leave us with only extreme candidates to choose from. It would introduce a ranked-choice voting system, requiring candidates to win a certain percentage of votes in an open vote among all candidates ahead of the general election. This would make it less likely for extremist candidates to be elected.

The initiative would change our system to create one single-ballot primary election for each office that lists all candidates for that office, with all parties and independents on the same ballot. Every voter can vote for every candidate, ranking each according to their preference. It would set rules for how many candidates can advance to the general election, and where there are more than two, they are ranked as well. It would eliminate state funding for any partisan primary, including at the presidential level. 

The specific rules and procedures for the vote are not specified in the initiative, only that voter rankings must be considered and the Legislature will set the rules. If the lawmakers don’t get that done my November 1, the Secretary of State is empowered to set the election rules. 

How it works

Here’s how ranked-choice voting usually works. Rather than vote for one candidate, you, give each candidate a numeric ranking, with your favorite as #1. The votes go through tabulation, and the candidate with the least #1 votes is eliminated; the votes are tabulated again, using the #2 choices from ballots where the eliminated candidate was #1, and again the bottom candidate is eliminated; the process repeats till two candidates emerge to go to the general ballot.

This process reduces the chance that your vote is wasted — you can vote for the candidates you like best regardless of their odds of winning, and your second and third choices, etc., remain in the running, resulting in consensus candidates for the general election.

This form of voting is already in use in Alaska, Maine and four major US cities. 

There will be opposition

Arizona Secretary of State Adrian Fontes, a Democrat, says he is neutral on the act, but that if it gets on the ballot and passes he would have to move quickly to set new rules in time for the next election. He recently spoke to the League of Women Voters of Arizona about the issue. That group has yet to take a stand on ranked-choice voting.

“You know that I asked my own party to open up the presidential-preference election in 2020,” Fontes said. “I’ve always advocated for every eligible voter to vote in every election. We should be breaking down barriers. I don’t care what your party is, if you’re an eligible citizen and you’re registered to vote, you’re voting in that election. So that’s kind of a big hint on where I stand.”

Already four initiatives are on the ballot — one is a legislatively referred state-statute update, the other three are legislatively referred constitutional amendments (LRCAs). Many more LRCAs appear to be on the way because with their legislative majority Republicans can pass them easily.

Republicans have stated publicly that they intend to load up voter initiatives on the ballot, partly because they want the public to give up figuring them out and vote against all of them, especially the Make Elections Fair Arizona Act and the Abortion Access Act Amendment. Neither of these has yet qualified for the ballot, but they are known to be broadly popular.

One LRCA is in direct opposition to the Make Elections Fair amendment. The Arizona Require Partisan Primaries and Prohibit Primaries Where Candidates Compete Regardless of Party Affiliation Amendment (2024) would require partisan primary elections for partisan offices; prohibit primary elections where all candidates, regardless of party affiliation, run in the same primary election (such as top-two, top-four and top-five primaries); and spell out that the state’s direct primary-election law supersedes any local charter or ordinance inconsistent with that law.

What it doesn’t do, say analysts, is forbid ranked-choice elections. However, another proposed LRCA would explicitly do that, thugh it has yet to pass both houses. That proposal is based on a bill that passed in 2023 but was vetoed by Governor Katie Hobbs; the LRCA is an attempt to get around that veto.

State Rep. Austin Smith (R-29), who sponsored the partisan-primaries amendment in the Legislature, said he does not think the amendment itself would prohibit ranked-choice voting. He sponsored a 2023 bill to prohibit ranked-choice voting, which passed the Legislature but was vetoed by Hobbs. The Governor cannot veto a constitutional amendment, another reason why Republicans are going all-in on LRCAs they know would otherwise face a veto.

The Arizona Democratic Party has used ranked-choice voting in its board elections and in electing delegates to the national convention in the past, but hasn’t voiced an official opinion. Nationally, the Democratic Party filed suit to adopt ranked-choice voting and allow voters without a party affiliation to cast ballots in primaries. So far the Democratic National Committee has not come out against it.

Arizona Republic columnist Laurie Roberts points out that both parties have benefited from the current system in electing candidates. She writes that for Democrats, extreme Republican candidates make it more likely that moderate Democratic candidates like Hobbs, who most recently ran against MAGA candidate Kari Lake.

Whether or not the amendment will go forward is hard to say at this point. The group behind it has raised $5.5 million for the effort, and has until July to collect signatures.

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