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Former mayor and county attorney to debate open elections

A former Phoenix mayor and the Maricopa County Attorney will debate the merits of a ballot initiative that would abolish the existing Arizona primary system in the Memorial Union on Thursday.

Proposition 121 would allow registered independents to vote in primary races and replace the one candidate per party system with a “top two” primary vote.

Former Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson, chair of the Arizona Open Election Committee, said the proposition would benefit independent voters.

“It allows independent voters access to primaries,” he said. “Today, they are dramatically discriminated against.”

Johnson said the existing system, which allows Democratic and Republican voters to easily participate in primary elections and excludes independent voters, is “by design” to keep the power in the hands of the major parties.

Johnson said this new primary election process would save Maricopa County money.

Producing a consolidated ballot, instead of separate ones for each party, would save $200,000 per election cycle, he said.

Johnson said municipal races that do not label candidates’ party affiliations illustrate how open elections are fairer.

“In a city election where parties don’t matter, ideas matter,” Johnson said.

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, who will represent the opposition at the debate, is not as optimistic.

“This is an initiative of empty promises that’s based in false assumptions and has very foreseeable negative consequences,” Montgomery said.

Montgomery agrees the proposition will be cost efficient in some ways, just not to the electorate.

“The issue about saving money is partly true because it will take out the partisan aspect of the primaries, but taxpayers will still have to pay for them,” Montgomery said.

Montgomery said a major flaw in the changed process is that it would still lack the diversity it promises in general elections.

“Another false assumption is that this open primary increases voter choice,” Montgomery said. “No matter how many candidates are qualified to run, there are only two that will appear on a general election ballot. That is not more choice.”

Montgomery said the notion that the proposition would get more politicians to cross the aisle to appeal to more voters is not true because “good politicians” already go out and speak to as many constituents as they can.

“I go out and talk to everybody, and I run this office that way,” Montgomery said. “I run it for everybody regardless of how they vote.”

Debate moderator Jennifer Holsman Tetreault, legal counsel for Rural/Metro Corporation, said she looks forward to informing voters.

“I want the debate to … be informative so the voter can know all the intricacies of Proposition 121 and have the opportunity to hear both sides,” Tetreault said.

The debate should focus on voter education so voters feel comfortable about making a decision in the booth on Nov. 6, Tetreault said.

The debate will start at 6 p.m. in the MU Mohave Room.


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