Monday, October 22, 2012

Prop 121, the "jungle primary" initiative: not really designed to improve things

Among the ballot questions on this year's ballot is Proposition 121, a measure that would amend Arizona's Constitution to do away with partisan primaries in favor of a "top two" or "jungle" primary.  Instead of candidates running in a primary election to determine their party's nominee (s) for a particular office or independent candidates gathering enough signatures to directly gain a place on the general election ballot, all candidates for an office will run in a single primary with the top two vote-getters, regardless of partisan affiliation (or non-affiliation) moving on to the general election ballot (or two for each opening where multiple openings exist for the same office, such as state representative).

The measure is actively (and vociferously) opposed by the political parties (small to large) and certain civic groups (like the League of Women Voters) and wholeheartedly supported by a coalition of pro-business groups and their advocates.

Last week, there were two pro-Prop 121 events here in the Valley.

On Wednesday, ASU's Morrison Institute held a discussion on ASU's Downtown Campus with Jackie Salit, president of and author of Independents Rising: Outsider Movements, Third Parties, and the Struggle for a Post-Partisan America, and Mickey Edwards, a former Congressman and author of the book The Parties Versus the People.

Friday, Zocalo Public Square held an event at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art with Edwards (sans Salit) titled "Are Political Parties Hurting Our Democracy?"

(L-R) Edwards, Salit, and Don Budinger of the Morrison Institute Wednesday evening
Both events, though not SRO, were well-attended.  However, not all attendees were supportive -

A rather agitated State Rep. John Kavanagh (R-Fountain Hills), at the Morrison Institute event
Kavanagh wasn't the only local politico who made an appearance Wednesday (though he was the only one who directly participated in the discussion) - current candidate for Congress Kyrsten Sinema, former Attorney General Terry Goddard, and former mayor of Phoenix Paul Johnson (a supporter of the measure) all were there at one point or another.

Salit and Edwards basically took the position that political parties have controlled the levers of government, and to the point of this initiative (and their respective books  :) ), access to ballots for the benefit of themselves and not for the people of the country.

And to be fair, there is some truth to that.  For example in Arizona, while there is a path to the ballot for Independent candidates, the signature requirements are much higher for them (3% of voters registered as "other") than for partisan candidates (1/2 of 1% of voters registered in a party).

The supporters of the measure argue that passing the measure will result in candidates that are more responsive to voters and even more "centrist".

However, there is no evidence to that effect in the states that already have a "jungle primary" system in place.

It has created situations such as those in California where in one district two very liberal Democrats are facing off in the general election (30th Congressional District) - a Democratic-leaning district, to be sure, but not an exclusively Democratic one - and another, the 31st Congressional District, where the general election ballot has two Anglo Republicans are running to represent a Latino and Democratic leaning district.

What a jungle primary *doesn't* do is address what I consider to be the main malady that ails modern American politics -


Too many people, non-voters and low-information voters alike, just don't care about politics, being "too busy" or "too good" or "too something" to be bothered.  Even many of the people who vote believe that their civic duty is done once the election is over, acting as if our society and our government is a "fire it up and forget it" sort of operation.

This measure is being marketed as a "magic pill" that *may* cure all that ails AZ politics (to be fair, while many of the local supporters of Prop 121 have taken this tack, Salit and Edwards did not; they think that the jungle primary system is "better", but not perfect).

Based on what I heard and witnessed last week, Salit and Edwards are honest in their intent and honorable in their character, but on this matter, they are simply wrong.

Much like term limits before it, the jungle primary represents, at best, change for the sake of change.  Not change that will actually improve anything.

The "top two" or "jungle" scheme seems to be much like "supply side" economics - where supply-siders posit that if a product or service is cheap enough, people will buy it (yes I know that is *very* simplified, but this post is about practical politics, not economic theory), Salit, Edwards, Johnson, and the rest of the jungle primary supporters believe, and want others to believe, that if we just get "better" candidates, more people will be happy with the available choices on Election Day.

However, the problem with supply side economics is that its proponents ignore the fact that the US has a demand-driven economy.  Price may affect existing demand for a product, but it won't *create* demand. 

By the same token, "better" candidates may impact the thinking of already-engaged voters, but voters who aren't engaged still won't care.

And I freely admit that I have no idea how to address that particular problem. 

Feel free to leave suggestions in a comment; outlandish is OK, just keep it within the realm of possibility.  And civility. :)

While my vote wasn't changed, I do thank the Morrison Institute, Zocalo, and especially Edwards and Salit.  I may disagree with this measure, but any civil discussion on how to improve our political system should always be welcomed.

A second "thank you" goes out to Jackie Salit, who generously took time for a phone interview with me on Monday.  We may disagree on this, but she was intelligent, gracious, and eloquent.

Steve at the Arizona Eagletarian offers his take Friday's Zocalo event here.

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