Lawmakers seek to rival citizen ballot initiative with one of its own

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By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman

PHOENIX -- Gov. Jan Brewer and state lawmakers are working on plans that would rival a likely citizen ballot measure that drastically changes Arizona's current partisan election system.

Capitol leaders are considering a special session next week to put its own a competing measure on the November ballot.

The details are still being worked out, but Sen. Frank Antenori, R-Tucson, said the goal is to ensure candidates from all political parties can compete in the general election.

Antenori, a Republican from Tucson, said changing the current system would, "create a lot of grief and heartache for a lot of people."

Although he said the backers Open Elections Open Government initiative might mean well, "the road to hell is paved with good intentions."

A spokesman for the governor's office says a special session would likely be called for Tuesday.

Brewer, according to her spokesman, Matthew Benson, wants to make sure candidates list their party registration.

The governor is working on a measure that would deal with that single issue, Benson said. "The governor believes that you need to disclose your party," Benson said. "Your party affiliation says a lot about who you are and what your values are."

On Thursday, leaders from Open Elections Open Government filed more than 365,000 signatures to get their measure on the November ballot.

If passed, it would create a so-called "jungle primary" where the top two vote getters in the primary move on to the general election regardless of party.

Benson says the measure allow candidates to run without listing their political party on the ballot. Officials with the Open Elections organization did not immediately respond to phone calls.

Having two measures in the ballot could confuse voters and cause both to fail, said Arizona State University professor Bruce Merrill.

But, he says, the GOP-led legislature risks a backlash from the voters in the fall. "If this becomes a battle between the legislature and the people, I can tell you who's going to win that fight," Merrill said.

According to the veteran political pollster, the Legislature has abysmal approval ratings and success could come down to money. If that's that case, the Open Government group appears to be well funded.

According to its chairman, former Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson, the organizations spent close to $1 million to get the signatures. Officials with the group said they were prepared to spend more to pass the measure.

Johnson, who served as mayor from 1990 to 1994, said he personally spent about $125,000 to make sure the initiative got on the ballot.

It's unclear who would fund the legislature’s proposal if they succeed at getting a measure on the ballot. But Merrill says he expected the state Democratic and Republican parties will get involved.

The Open Government initiative, he says, "takes an enormous amount of power away from the parties and I think you'll see them do whatever it takes."

State election officials still have to verify the signatures before putting it on the ballot, but officials with the campaign are confident there won't be any problems.

Currently, the state holds partisan primaries where candidates with the most votes in each partisan primary compete against each other in the November general election.

Supporters of non-partisan primaries say it will break partisan gridlock and force candidates to move away from the extreme edges of politics and seek out middle ground.

California has already switched to an open primary system and the results so far have been mixed.

Last month the state held its first primary since changing the rules, but turnout remained low and most of the winning candidates were registered Democrats and Republicans.

The new election system did produce a handful of congressional races where candidates from the same party will face each other in the general election.