ASU’s Morrison Institute pushes Top Two Primary with study on “independent” voters

Crossposted from

The inimitable Jay Smooth explains, via rapper T-Pain and Sean Hannity, why you can’t possibly know more about politics than people who pay attention if you don’t pay attention.

In case the embedded video doesn’t play.

ASU’s Morrison Institute issued a study of the elusive “independent voters” in Arizona. It was commissioned by the Clean Elections Commission and was pretty comprehensive (albeit with what I consider to be some gaps that I’ll get to in a bit) in that it included several focus groups and surveys and it asked what I believe is the pertinent question about this group of voters:

Are independent voters truly an untapped resource that could determine elections, aiding in the transformation of Arizona from a conservative “red state” into a “purple” moderate state or even more progressive “blue state?” Or, with no organization and a track record of poor turnout in both primary and general elections, are independents a much-ado-about-nothing “party” of non-participants?

I’m going with the latter, and not just based on my own frustrating personal experience with these voters. Oh no, thanks to this study we now have empirical evidence to go on. They not only don’t vote:

We know actual voter turnout is significantly lower than survey respondents indicate because voters tend to overstate their voting behavior – primarily because it is socially unacceptable to admit to not voting.

Actual voting statistics for Democrats, Republicans and independents in the 2010 primary and general elections in Maricopa County (the most recent data we have available) are 25 percent and 50 percent for Democrats; 42 percent and 61 percent for Republicans; and 8 percent and 34 percent for independents, respectively. In short, independents exert almost no impact on primary elections and a much-reduced voice, compared with Republicans and
Democrats, in general elections.

But they also don’t seem to know anything about Arizona politics. Not saying this to be mean but it’s true, as evidenced by this statement:

“The reason we don’t care for either party is the polarization thing: ‘We are absolutely socialist.’ ‘We are all for business.’ And neither one of those is true. But sometimes you get stuck thinking that way simply because it’s easier.”

While Arizona Republicans could certainly be said to be all for business, the same cannot be said for Arizona Democrats with respect to socialism. Perhaps this voter is thinking of Bernie Sanders, who is running for President, but no prominent Democrat in Arizona since Kyrsten Sinema described herself as one a decade ago when she was in the Legislature (and, oh boy, has she undergone a transformation!) has even so much as played footsie with the concept. Most refuse to even breathe the suggestion that income taxes should be raised. But even if Democratic politicians here were uniformly the reincarnation of Eugene Debs, they don’t run a single branch of the state government, not that the following voter seems to know that:

“I think if the existing parties were less partisan, a lot fewer people would be registered as independents. You can count me in that group, because part of what really turns me off is their commitment to their ideology rather than their commitment to governing, and so part of me being an independent is a protest statement.”

If you refuse to join a party and then don’t vote your “protest statement” is largely a shout into the windmills of your mind but at least consider letting Democrats in on some of that “governing” before you count us out, will ya? Democrats neither hold a single statewide office nor run a single committee in the Arizona legislature but the Morrison researchers claim that “the overwhelming majority of respondents” of all parties “[believe] there is too much partisan conflict at the Arizona state capitol”. It doesn’t appear that Morrison queried respondents on their knowledge of what party runs what in the state (Republicans: everything) or if they understand what that means in how our state is currently governed.

It’s very likely that these voters are extrapolating the gridlock they see in DC to the Arizona capitol and don’t understand that conservative ideology and GOP priorities are having the free run of our state and that some real “partisan conflict” might actually be an improvement. Some voters appear not to know that there is even a difference between national and state government. On Facebook recently I saw a Democratic activist in Tucson describe a town meeting about Governor Ducey’s land trust education deal where a voter there insisted the whole thing had to be Raul Grijalva’s fault, though the Congressman had no hand in it. When I ran for state senate in 2006 I was asked more than once if I was running against John McCain or Jon Kyl.

Of course, the Democrats running for statewide office and the competitive districts needed to take over at least one of the legislative chambers have done their utmost to impress upon the electorate that they are both moderate (which, per the Morrison report, 52% of both Democratic and Republican voters and a whopping 73% of voters who choose neither party claim to be) and willing to reach across the aisle. If Fred DuVal, Terry Goddard, Felecia Rotellini, David Garcia, Sandra Kennedy, and Jim Holway ran on a commitment to leftist ideology that would certainly be news to them and anyone who paid a whit of attention to their campaigns in 2014, which obviously was not the case with most of the “independent” voters Morrison interviewed.

The questions Morrison asked of the focus groups revealed a lot about what voters think of themselves:

We asked what it means to be an independent voter. They explained that “independent” means “more choices and less commitment with the parties.” With more options comes more of an obligation to do research independent of party lines, which is why independents also describe themselves as more informed and more critical of what politicians say than other voters. One participant stated:

“The independents are the ones that can sort of maintain the line, stand there in
front of all of it and make a selection of something that is not spoon-fed to you. (An)
independent says, ‘I looked at it. I believe in the system. I believe in the Constitution,
in the voting, but these two clowns ain’t got it.’”

But not what they know about the state of governance in Arizona, whatever “research” they’re doing notwithstanding. It’s kind of ridiculous to let people act like they are such careful scholars of Arizona politics without challenging them on their knowledge. Morrison does emphasize the problem of nonpartisan voters being unaware of the fact that they can vote in partisan primaries if they want:

Independent voters may believe they are better informed than their partisan counterparts, yet many do not even know they can vote in the primary election. Restrictive earlier laws regarding independents and primaries, and presidential preference elections (where only party members can choose a party’s nominee), only add to their confusion.

Yet the Morrison Institute was not interested in delving into why so many voters across the political spectrum (with the notable exception of conservative-leaning independents and registered Republicans) don’t feel that they are being represented at the State Capitol. There’s nothing nebulous or inscrutable about this: It’s because they are not being represented at the State Capitol, as it is run by conservative Republicans, for conservative Republicans! But apparently a lot of the disenchanted voters don’t know that.

In the appendix of the study is a poll of 2000 Arizona voters asked about various issues including abortion, the death penalty, and mandatory disclosure of campaign contributions. Informative stuff there.

But here is where we get to why the Morrison Institute may have tailored their research the way they did.

Election Structure

Based on the research findings, the vast majority of Arizona voters favor changes in the current election structure.

Respondents were asked whether they would “support primary elections where all candidates for an elected office are included on the same ballot, without identifying their political party.” While there is some split by political affiliation, 58 percent of all registered voters would support such a ballot change. Republicans oppose this change by a narrow margin (46 percent favor the change), while Democrats (58 percent) and moderate
independents (72 percent) favor it.

There is overwhelming support (85 percent) among registered Arizona voters to allow “all registered voters, including independents, to vote for any candidate on the ballot, rather than just those from a single political party.” Support comes from all political persuasions – 73 percent of Republicans, 90 percent of Democrats and 94 percent of moderate independents.

Voters also “support primary elections in which the two candidates receiving the largest number of votes, regardless of their political affiliation, face off in the general election” (82 percent of all registered voters, 78 percent of Republicans, 83 percent of Democrats and 87 percent of moderate independents).

Posing it that way really makes it seem like voters get so much choice, doesn’t it? It doesn’t reflect the reality where 20-25% of registered voters in the primary election decide for 60-75% of the general electorate whom the two, and only two, candidates they will be able to choose from for each elected office in the general election – the one that counts – will be.

The Morrison Institute brainiacs appear to see Top Two as a brilliant technocratic innovation that will usher in moderate purple state rainbows, with no evidence to support that supposition. It will definitely increase the power of money and act as a form of voter suppression (which is the effect of limiting voters only two choices in the general election no matter how “choice-y” you dress it up to be).

Morrison acknowledges the disparity between stated voting behavior (most voters claim to vote in every election) with actual voting (much lower according to voting records) so it’s disappointing and troubling that they don’t do the same with basic civics knowledge. Most Arizona voters aren’t even remotely political junkies but do know enough to throw around words like “ideology” and “partisanship” so as to avoid the embarrassment of admitting they don’t know a lot. Presenting voters who pay little to no attention to what is going on with ballots on general election day with only two options for each race and no information about the candidates aside from their name is not going to shock them into becoming instant experts.

The Clean Elections Institute should think hard about lending their name to promoting this, not only because even making it to one of the two general election slots will be a difficult prospect for most publicly funded candidates under a jungle primary system, but also because it is part of their mission to educate and inform Arizona voters, not keep them in the dark.

3 thoughts on “ASU’s Morrison Institute pushes Top Two Primary with study on “independent” voters”

  1. Donna:

    On Friday I attended the Morrison Institute’s State of Our State Conference focused on criminal sentencing reform in Arizona. Odd fellow sponsors included the ACLU and the Charles Koch Foundation, both of which want criminal sentencing reforms, albeit from different perspectives and for different reasons.

    The Morrison Institute cannot emphasize enough that it is “nonpartisan” — so it can attract the kind of sponsors above — and that it is all about “policy, not politics.” Among the Morrison Institute’s distinguished fellows is Terry Goddard — who purportedly is wedding his “dark money” initiative to Paul Johnson’s “top two primary” initiative — and The Republic’s über conservative GOP apologist, Robert Robb (he has also been a board member of the Goldwater Institute.) See how “nonpartisan” we are!

    This does not necessarily result in the best public policy, but the policy that the wealthy elites who are willing to fund such research institutes support. I don’t believe any of these organizations are truly independent of the influence of their financial supporters.

  2. No. No. No. No, no, no. No Top Two Primary. No. Does anybody really think the Morrison Institute is independent and non-partisan? If they produce a report that the Ducey and crowd do not like they lose their funding, their offices, and their Association with ASU. AZBlueMeaney is so right, independent voters are mostly uninformed and disengaged voters who are easily swayed by the fear-threat moment of the week. If they were not they would get their asses down to the Primaries and pick a Party ballot to vote as they are currently allowed in state law. Personally I think we should go back to restrictive Party ballots. People need to choose which Party they want to associate with by looking at Party platforms and positions. Small Parties will be completely wiped out by Top Two. Vote splittingy by running straw candidates is a strategy with Top Two. No this is a bad bad bad idea. What is the point of having a Primary if you don’t divide it by Parties?

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