PHOENIX - Former Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson says it's no surprise that the only segment of political registration that's growing is among independents.
Voter disenchantment with, and abandoning of, the two major political parties is one of the factors behind Proposition 121, which seeks to scrap the current system of partisan primary elections, he said.
For the general election two years ago there were slightly more than a million Democrats. The most recent figures put that down to about 936,000. Republicans fared little better, shedding more than 18,000 adherents to drop their registration to 1.1 million.
But independent registration skyrocketed from about 982,000 then to more than a million now.
"What we've seen from scientific polling is they're giving up on the system," said Johnson, a former Democrat who now also is an independent. "They think that the political parties today are more concerned with keeping a majority or getting a majority than they are with really dealing with substantive issues."
Proposition 121 would create a wide-open primary for each legislative, county, statewide and congressional office, featuring all candidates of all political persuasions. The same change would take place in Tucson, the only city to have partisan local elections.
The top two vote-getters would advance to the general election, regardless of party affiliation.
Johnson believes that will force all the candidates to appeal to all the voters to get nominated, not just those of their own party.
But that possibility is its greatest weakness according to foes.
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said that can end up with results that really do not reflect the will of the voters or give them a real choice.
The poster child event for opponents was the open primary earlier this year in a Southern California congressional district that had two Republicans and four Democrats.
The two Republicans split the GOP vote, but they each still had more votes than any of the Democrats who split the Democratic vote four ways. As a result, voters in what is considered a swing district had to choose between a Republican and a Republican.
Montgomery said the same problem will exist in Arizona because Proposition 121 would not create a real nonpartisan system. Instead each candidate could self-declare political leanings, using whatever description is available with 20 characters.
Johnson, however, said a Republican vs. Republican race still will be preferable to what occurs now.
In at least two-thirds of the legislative districts, one party or the other has such a strong voter registration edge the primary effectively becomes the general election. General-election opposition from the minority party in that district is irrelevant.
The open primary that resulted in two Republicans running in the general election will at least mean some real competition in November, Johnson said.
"One of them will get smart and figure out how to appeal to Democrats," he said. "And that's the one that will win."
The measure has picked up opposition from the League of Women Voters.
Barbara Klein, the organization's Arizona president, said she agrees with Johnson that the current system leaves independents at a disadvantage, something that might be aided by an open primary that puts all candidates on an equal footing.
But she said Proposition 121 won't help independents and minor party candidates "unless they're very wealthy or extremely well connected."
Potentially more significant, Klein believes such a radical change will actually reduce the ability of these minority voices to get heard.
Klein said while the league does not take a position on the relative merits of political parties, it does recognize they have a purpose: They represent the values of a particular group of voters. She said those voices will get lost in a wide-open primary.
"And when November rolls around and normal people start to pay attention to the ballot, they're going to find out they have a lot less choice," Klein said. "And in some cases, they're going to have no choice at all."
The current system pretty much ensures at least the Libertarians and Green Party representatives have a chance to be on the general election ballot and will get to participate in those general election debates. Similarly, those who collect enough signatures to run as independents gain equal status.
Proposition 121 essentially forecloses that option.
Johnson acknowledged party labels come with "strong brand recognition," which can be helpful. But he does not see the initiative harming those beyond the two major parties.
"Independents, Libertarians and Green Party candidates aren't really winning much anyway," Johnson said. And he said if the goal of those parties is not to win races but instead promote a point of view, they can do that in the primaries.
Johnson said, though, the initiative could be a boon for independents.
Under the current law, a Democrat can qualify to run for a statewide office with just 4,765 signatures on petitions. Republicans need 5,671.
But an independent needs 31,111 names, based in part on the ability to qualify for the general election without going through a primary. Proposition 121, with a single primary, would have a single signature requirement for everyone.
It would also end free distribution of voter registration lists to political parties, which they can share with their candidates, putting everyone else who has to buy the list at a disadvantage.
"The system today, it's rigged," Johnson said. "Sooner or later, whether it's through my effort or another effort, that's going to change."
The Star is publishing a series explaining the nine state and one city propositions appearing on this year's general election ballot. The schedule for those stories is:
• Monday: Proposition 119 and Proposition 118.
• Tuesday: Proposition 120.
• Wednesday: Proposition 116 and Proposition 117.
• Thursday: Proposition 114.
• Friday: Proposition 115.
• Today: Proposition 121.
• Sunday: Proposition 204 - Making the existing 1-cent sales tax surcharge permanent; and Proposition 409 - $100 million city bond issue.