PDA open primaries debate: Emotion vs Facts


Volgy889-sm72 by Pamela Powers Hannley

More than 60 Southern Arizonans turned out last night to hear two UA profs politely duked out the open primaries question in a debate sponsored by the Progressive Democrats of American (PDA) Tucson Chapter

Before an attentive crowd, former State Representative (and self-proclaimed recovering politician) Ted Downing (below) argued for open primaries. Speaking against was former Tucson mayor Tom Volgy (above).

Each speaker was given 15 minutes to make his case, followed by one five-minute rebuttal each and questions supplied by the audience. 

Both men conducted themselves in a professional manner but politely disagreed. Downing thoroughly explained the open primaries initiative, how the process would work, and why it is important. Volgy, on the other hand, relied on the emotional appeal. Volgy repeatedly called open primaries "non-partisan" (which they're not since candidates can add a party label next to their names); warned of the impending flood of Republican money from the north which would destroy life as we know it down here in Baja Arizona; and tried to scare the audience with examples of low voter turnout in Maricopa County elections that are non-partisan. (Since Volgy tossed around the non-partisan label freely, I'm not sure if the Maricopa elections are truly non-partisan– no party labels at all– or if the party labels are optional.)

Downing888-sm72Both men agreed that our political system needs reform, that big money is a corrupting influence, and that fighting against Citizens United is imperative. Volgy said that fight should be won before we tinker with an experimental system like open primaries. Downing said that Arizona should continue along the American tradition of broadening the electorate– pointing out that originally only landed white men could voted, then unlanded men were added to voting rolls, then black men, then women, then 18-20 year-olds. 

One of the biggest differences between them was on the question of disenfranchisement of voters. Currently in Arizona about one-third of voters are registered as Independent (ie, no party); nationwide, according to Downing, 40% of voters are registered as Independent. Downing made a strong case that those voters have a lesser voice in government because they don't belong to one of the two major parties. Volgy skirted the disenfranchisement question until he was directly asked about it by a member of the audience. He agreed that it was more of a hassle for Independents to vote in the primary, since they have to choose a party and request a ballot, but they are allowed to vote. In the presidential race, Volgy said Independent voters will be courted by both major parties.

The attendees voted before and after the debate. Before the debate, the audience was more or less split evenly on the question, with a large number of "undecided" voters. After the debate, the "no" side of the question had swayed more voters than the "yes" side, and there were far fewer "undecided". 

The Open Elections/Open Government group is gathering signatures to put the open primaries initiative on the November 2012 ballot. Under the current system, Republicans and Democrats hold separate party primaries (funded by taxpayers) to elect their candidates. Democrats vote in the Democratic Primary; Republicans vote in the Republican Primary; and Independents must request one ballot or the other. One winner from each party then competes in the general election.

Under the top-two primary system, all primary candidates–- regardless of party affiliation–- participate in the same primary, and anyone can vote for anybody– no party restrictions. The open primaries initiative is not the same as "non-partisan" or "no labels" because candidates can choose to identify themselves by party on the ballot (ie, "registered as Democrat," registered as Green," etc.) The top-two vote-getters–- regardless of party– compete in the General Election. The open primaries system, if adopted, would apply to all primary elections in Arizona– except US president.

As the election draws nearer, we will undoubtedly hear more about the open primaries question. Stay tuned.




  1. Louisiana has had open primaries since 1976 and you can see the results of that with respect to the argument that open primaries leads to more moderation because candidates will have to appeal to a larger swath of the electorate. In 1991 David Duke (yes, that David Duke) won a slot in the general election for Governor. And today the Democrats in LA are so marginalized that they aren’t even fielding candidates for many of the statewide offices. The Republicans running the state, OTOH, are exactly the sort of right wing wackaloons that open primaries advocates promise that their reform will run out of politics. There is simply no procedural “magic bullet” that will mitigate the right wing extremism that has taken hold of the Republican Party. And yes, the Republicans are the problem. There is not “extremism on both sides”. And I agree with AZ BlueMeanie re increased voter participation. There’s simply no evidence to support that and many voters are independents precisely because they’re not interested in being part of the primary process.

    Plus, anyone who holds an actual position in the state Democratic Party – I’m talking about state committee, chair, precinct committeeman, etc. – who supports this idea ought to really think hard about how it reconciles with their position. Because as fashionable as it is in many circles nowadays to wrinkle one’s nose at “partisanship”, accepting a position in a political party makes you a partisan. If you don’t want to be a Democratic Party activist, that is, someone who works to promote the Democratic platform and grow the number of Democratic voters in Arizona, then by all means step aside and do whatever it is that fulfills you. Because you can’t help your party and undermine it at the same time. Again, I am speaking strictly to people who hold positions in the Democratic Party with this.

  2. I am opposed to the Open Primary system because in actuality it REDUCES choices for voters in November. Minor political parties like the Libertarian Party and Green Party will no longer automatically qualify a candidate for the ballot in November. In effect, Open Primaries puts minor political parties out of business.

    Due to party registration advantages in the way that districts are districted, you are also less likely to have the traditional choice between a Republican and a Democrat. It is much more likely that your choice will be between two Republicans in a GOP-registration district, and between two Democrats in a DEM-registration district. Again, this REDUCES choices for voters in November — and if the concern here is voter disenfranchisement, there is no greater voter disenfrachisement than voters who feel they have no real choices in November. We already see depressed voter turnout in districts with lopsided GOP or DEM voter registration where the winner is determined in the primary.

    I am curious about this idea that Independents are disenfranchised? In what way? Who disenfranchised them? Independents tend to be low information voters who are politically disengaged. When they vote, if at all, it is at the November general election. Under this Open Primary system, their choices are likely to be REDUCED to choosing between two Republicans or two Democrats, depending on their district, and this will only depress voter turnout among the politically disengaged Independents even further.

    Is the point that this will encourage Independents to run for political office? This is highly speculative at best, and not supported by available evidence. Campaigns take money and organization. “Independent” is not a political party. There is no structure for raising money or any organization. The type of Independent candidate this is most likely to attract is a self-funded wealthy individual — or one beholden to corporate funded Super-PACs. Do we really want “the candidate sponsored by the Koch brothers”?

    Finally, Independents are not truly “independent.” There are several good research studies which demonstrate that only about 7% of the electorate are true “swing” voters, and the remainder of so-called Independents are in fact lean-GOP or lean-DEM voters.

    The Open Primary system will have quite the opposite effect of what its advocates intend. We will see a real life test of Open Primaries in the California primary this year. All “good government” (Goo-Goos) reforms that have turned out quite the opposite of what was intended got their start in the laboratory of California and find their way to Arizona.