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In Tuesday's 'primary,' Arizona's independent voters don't get much of a say

In Arizona, the electorate is divided into thirds, split roughly equally among Republicans, Democrats and independent voters. But when Arizonans head to the polls Tuesday to cast their vote for presidential nominees, all those independent voters have to stay home.

That's not the case in most Arizona elections.

For example, in the state's upcoming July 30 primary, registered Republicans can vote for Republicans, and registered Democrats for Democrats.

If you're anindependent, you have the option to select a party primary to participate in — either by requesting an early ballot, or picking a Republican or Democratic ballot when you head to the polls.

But this election?

"We call it a preference election as opposed to a primary," said Eric Spencer, who served as the state's elections director under a previous GOP administration.

There's two reasons for that. First, Tuesday's vote isn't binding. The Republican and Democratic parties meet separately to select delegates for this summer's presidential nominating conventions. And state law only requires those delegates to make their best effort to cast votes for the winners of the respective parties' popular vote in Arizona.

But the simpler reason, and one election officials in Arizona go to great lengths to explain to voters every four years, is that unlike other primaries, independents aren't invited.

"For the PPE, or the Presidential Preference Election, only registered party members are allowed to participate," Spencer said.

'As many voters as possible'

It was Arizona voters who decided to let independents play in primaries when they approved a ballot measure in 1998.

"It's a western state. So, there's sort of that independent spirit that's always kind of flowing through Arizona," Democratic election attorney Roy Herrera explained. "It doesn't surprise me that, at that point, the electorate in Arizona decided we should provide an opportunity for independents to have a say in one of the political party primaries."

But that ballot measure left intact the state's presidential preference election, created a few years prior.

Over the years, there's been talk of changing that. Ahead of the 2020 presidential elections, the Arizona Democratic Party considered opening its PPE to independents.

Arizona Secretary of State Adrian Fontes brought up the resolution in 2019. Back then, he helped administer elections as the recorder in Maricopa County, the largest county in the state.

What irked Fontes about the PPE was the administration of it — it may be a vote by and for political parties, but it's run by counties, and paid for by taxpayers regardless of their party affiliation.

"Independent voters pay for that activity, they pay for that election, as taxpayers, and I really wasn't super keen on the notion that the parties could exclude those voters," Fontes told NPR recently.

In 2020, Republicans had decided to forgo their own contest, letting then President Donald Trump secure the party's nomination unopposed.

Fontes saw it as a unique opportunity for Democrats.

"It made sense to me at the time, to make sure to include as many voters as possible in that presidential preference election contest," he said.

But Democrats at a state committee meeting rejected the idea. For as much as the state boasts about having an independent streak, when it comes to nominating a presidential candidate, many still feel it's a process best left to party members only.

On this, Spencer and Herrera — a Republican and Democrat, respectively, — can agree.

"I think that makes sense, that if you want to have a voice in who the Republican presidential nominee is, and who the Democratic presidential nominee is, then you should register as part of that political party," Herrera said.

And Spencer warns that letting independents participate would usher in a sea change.

"It would radically alter the way presidential candidates campaign in Arizona, it would radically alter who received Arizona's votes, and thus probably radically alter the course of the entire presidential election," he said.

Independent voters fight for a voice

To voters like Patricia Coughlin, that's exactly the point.

"This is why we have these two extremes, because the extremes of those parties turn out during the primaries, and that's who goes on to the general," Coughlin said.

Coughlin has been a registered independent for about a decade.

This year, she re-registered as a Republican to cast a vote for Nikki Haley. After sending in her early ballot, she re-registered again as an independent.

"I just went online, changed it, you know, got the ballot in the mail, voted and feel better about myself being able to do that. Like, OK, I did my part, even if my candidate doesn't win," she said.

The temporary switch is completely legal, but it's not a step many Arizona voters take every four years. Coughlin said she felt compelled.

"I just feel that it is our duty to vote, we're lucky to be able to, and it was frustrating to me that I couldn't, you know, cast a ballot," she said.

Four years from now, it may no longer be necessary.

There's a ballot initiative gathering signatures that would require the Republican and Democratic parties to either pay for future PPEs, or let independents participate.

It's got Coughlin's support. And she wants to make it clear — that's not just because her husband is the political consultant running the ballot initiative campaign. She's also one of the roughly 1.4 million Arizona independents who stand to benefit.

And, she says, Arizona would benefit from more independents like her participating.

"I think if more people voted in the primary, it would be better," Coughlin said.

As for Fontes, as the secretary of state now, he won't take a position on a measure that could appear on Arizona ballots in November.

But when asked if his opinion has changed since the last presidential primary season, Fontes continued to champion more voting opportunities for more registered voters.

"Arizona's voters should be allowed to vote in every election," he said. "I think we have a system that is, you know, and this is with respect to my own party as well, dominated by the political parties. And I think that the voter registration rolls show that there ought to be a little bit of flexibility there."

Copyright 2024 KJZZ

Ben Giles