PHOENIX — Republican state lawmakers are moving on multiple fronts to head off a possible voter initiative that would implement ranked choice voting in Arizona, a system designed to ensure that more moderate candidates can win elections.
The efforts come even as the groups considering a measure for the 2024 ballot remain in the early stages of their effort and concede it may not even move ahead.
Last week the Republican-controlled Legislature placed their own measure on the ballot precluding the non-traditional election format they contend disenfranchises some primary elections.
The proposal, HCR2033, would preempt any effort to change primary election laws to advance more than one person per political party to the general election.
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“We need this because it’s just clarifying what our direct primary election is,” freshman Rep. Austin Smith, R-Wittman, said during a Senate hearing. “Some people try to challenge that.”
And two much more direct measures are also advancing that would flat-out ban anything other than traditional vote-tallies where the top candidates advance from the primary election and face off head-to-head in the general election, with whoever gets the most votes prevailing.
Two states and more than 50 localities across the nation have enacted ranked choice voting in recent years, according to an October report by the Congressional Research Service. The goal of all the efforts is to eliminate the current system where partisan primary voters tend to pick non-moderate candidates, who then have little incentive to move to the middle and back consensus legislation.
That’s actually not what the voters want, according to Republican Rep. Alexander Kolodin.
“Most voters are not centrist,” Kolodin said during Wednesday’s meeting of the House committee where he advocated for the constitutional amendment that would ban ranked choice voting.
“Most voters are left or most voters are right,’’ he said. “And so by structuring a system where all we can get out of it is moderates, nobody gets their first choice.”
He doubled down on those comments in a later interview, explaining his opposition by calling the process “a black box” that is inconsistent state to state, appears arbitrary, “can be gamed” and is not transparent to voters.
“And most importantly, in my mind, it denies voters a real choice, right?” the freshman Scottsdale lawmaker and election law attorney said.
“Ranked choice voting essentially ensures you’re always going to get moderates,’’ he said. “Most voters, or at least a big chunk of voters, they aren’t moderates. There’s a lot of people who are conservatives, a lot of people who are liberals.”
That’s flat-out wrong, said Chuck Coughlin, a longtime Republican political operative and consultant now working to get ranked choice voting on the ballot as a member of the group Save Democracy Arizona.
“It’s patently untrue,’’ said Coughlin, who worked on the late Sen. John McCain campaign in the 1980s and was a close advisor to Republican former Gov. Jan Brewer. “I mean, look at the voter registration file: the largest part of voter registration file now is unaffiliated.”
Coughlin said most voters want public officials who solve problems, and most are not ideologically defined.
He said they realize instead that the nation is where it is because leaders did things like Brewer did that were unpopular with her own party’s right wing, such as pushing for Medicaid expansion and temporarily raising taxes to get Arizona through the Great Recession.
“Leadership is rewarded by voters, but it’s punished by primary voters,” Coughlin said.
Save Democracy Arizona is working with another group called Voter Choice Arizona on a potential initiative for the 2024 ballot. Leadership of both groups is bipartisan and packed with well-known Republicans, Democrats and independents.
The potential ballot measure would use a form of ranked choice voting where the top five candidates in first-round vote advance to the general election. Voters would then rank their picks in order.
If no candidate gets more than 50%, the lowest voter-getter would be eliminated and their voters’ second choice would be moved up, as often as necessary, until a winner emerges.
The ballot measure is not yet a sure-thing, Coughlin said. The final legal language has to be written, messaging nailed down and tested with focus groups and polling done before a decision is made.
“If I can’t get language that is going to go on top of the petition, that is going to be something I can test and point to, I can’t do this,” he said. “I’m not going to go raise $20 million, or try and beg $10 million from somebody, if I can’t win.”
Coughlin said his group is well-financed for their current efforts but will need to raise about $10 million to collect enough signatures and get the measure on the ballot, plus $10 million for the actual campaign. For a constitutional amendment, nearly 385,000 valid signatures plus a big cushion are needed.
The measures making their way through the Legislature to block ranked choice voting are being pushed by the Arizona Free Enterprise Club, a conservative group that lobbies for low taxes and small government.
“It builds upon our plurality voting system that protects one-person one-vote, and ensures Arizonans have an election system that guarantees lawfully cast votes are represented in the final tally of a contest,” testified the organization’s Amy Yentes this past week in support of one of the measures to preclude ranked choice voting. “This is an unassailable principle of an election system that upholds the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection clause — that someone’s legally cast vote is guaranteed to be counted in the final tally.”
That’s one of the messages of opponents: Someone could have their vote cast aside because their chosen candidate didn’t make the cut in a ranked choice tally.
Coughlin had a different take, saying it ensures voters can still weigh in on the final results even if their first choice is eliminated because their second, third or forth choice could emerge victorious.
State Sen. Anthony Kern. R-Glendale, is sponsoring a Senate measure. He said having lawmakers refer a measure to change the constitution is preferable to an initiative, which he expects to be backed by out-of-state donors.
“You have outside groups putting money into Arizona to push an initiative that really hasn’t worked well in other states,” he said, pointing to the New York mayor’s race where it took five tabulations to get an eventual winner.
“Let’s take me running for instance,” Kern said.
“If I’m like the fourth-place candidate, under most people on most people’s ballots I could, through circumstances, make it to the top and win the election, just like the current New York City mayor did,” he said. “And I think that if you didn’t get over 50% of the votes the first time around, you shouldn’t win an election.”
But Coughlin pointed to the current system where a small turnout primary election decides most races.
“The problem is 80% of people get elected in a primary where 14% of the people participate,” he said.
“And that’s a problem because you’re then beholden to that constituency,” Couglin continued. “And so what the net effect of what we’re doing is forcing everybody to be competitive in a general election, where everybody shows up, where the vast majority of voters vote.”
Coughlin said the decision of whether to ask voters to implement ranked choice voting is not dependent on what Republicans put on the ballot.
“I don’t really care what they do,” Couglin said.
“I’d prefer it not to be there just as a complicating factor,” he said of the GOP ballot proposal. “But it doesn’t really affect our thinking.”
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