Will Arizona’s Proposition 121 Hurt or Help Political Parties?
By Clint Bolick, Goldwater Institute
Proponents of Prop. 121, the “top two” Arizona ballot initiative, contend it will lead to the weakening of the two major political parties. But the opposite is true. In fact, it would strengthen them while killing third parties, all to the detriment of voter choices.
Prop. 121 would create an open primary in which all candidates—Republicans, Democrats, independents, and third parties—would run. Only the top two would go on to the general election, and no other candidates would be permitted to appear on the ballot.
In California, this has led to multiple general elections featuring two candidates from the same political party. To Prop. 121’s backers, this is nirvana: the surviving candidates supposedly would have to appeal to independents and voters from the other party. To us, two candidates from the same party looks like no choice at all.
Nor would this necessarily produce two Republicans in Republican-leaning districts or vice-versa. To the contrary, the more candidates who run in a primary from the same political party, the more they will split their party’s vote—improving the chances that the other party’s candidates will move on to the general election.
This year in Congressional District 9, which has a slight Republican registration edge, there were fewer Democrats than Republicans running in the primary, so that under Prop. 121 the top two candidates moving to the general election would have been two liberal Democrats, Kyrsten Sinema and David Schapira, rather than Sinema and her Republican opponent, Vernon Parker. Which scenario offers a real choice? To ask that question is to answer it.
The only way to prevent a multiplicity of candidates from one party splitting the primary vote is to pressure candidates not to run; and the only entity that can do that is strong political parties. Thus Prop. 121 would lead to stronger political bosses and fewer electoral choices.
As for third parties, this measure’s impact is even clearer: it would make them extinct. Except in the rarest circumstances, neither Greens nor Libertarians—or even Independents—ever would appear on a general election ballot.
Though Prop. 121 calls itself the “Open Elections” initiative, it is anything but. Good thing for its backers there’s not a law requiring truth in political advertising.
Clint Bolick is director of the Goldwater Institute’s Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation.
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