Open Primary to go on November Ballot

PHOENIX -- Voters will get to decide in November if they want to jettison the current system of nominating candidates for office.

In a brief order Thursday, the Arizona Supreme Court rejected arguments by foes of the Open Government initiative that Maricopa County Superior Court Judge John Rea should have given them more time last week to present evidence that many of the petitions were circulated by felons or others who had no legal right to seek signatures.

Justice Scott Bales said attorney Mike Liburdi, representing the Save Our Vote Committee, knew ahead of time he had only two hours to make his case. And Bales said Rea did nothing wrong in cutting him off when his time was up.

Liburdi said this is the end of the line -- at least for court fights -- in the efforts to kill Proposition 121.

"The Supreme Court's ruled and we read the order,' he said. "And I think now it's time to start getting the opposition campaign in high gear.'

This could be a contentious -- and expensive -- campaign. Proponents already had spent more than $964,000 as of the last finance report through Aug. 8; opponents reported only a small amount on that date but have separately disclosed spending $50,000 so far on the legal fight.

It also has resulted in some curious alliances, with business groups like Greater Phoenix Leadership aligned with the Phoenix firefighters union in support, and Republican Party leaders, some Hispanic Democrats and the League of Women Voters opposed.

Under the current system, candidates for statewide, legislative and county supervisor posts, as well as Tucson city elections, are nominated in partisan primaries. Then each party's candidates face off in the general election.

This change, if approved in November, would have all candidates for each office run in a single primary regardless of party affiliation. Then only the top two vote-getters would advance, even if it turned out that both are from the same party.

Proponents contend that requiring candidates to seek broad support in a primary, versus just the backing of party faithful, will result in the nomination of people with more centrist views. But opponents argue that there are legitimate reasons to have only party members decide who should be their nominees.

The court fight, however, was simpler.

Last week, Liburdi brought boxes of petitions into Rea's court, contending he had enough invalid petitions to leave proponents short of the 259,213 needed to qualify for the ballot.

But Liburdi never got to make that case.

With a printing deadline approaching for ballots, Rea allocated each side only two hours to make its case. And Liburdi's time ran out before he had a chance to introduce all the petitions in evidence -- and short of the number of signatures he needed to disqualify.

Bales said Rea did nothing wrong.

"The trial court did not deny Save Our Vote due process under the circumstances of this expedited election litigation,' Bales wrote.

Thursday's ruling ends a legal roller coaster ride for the measure.

In August, a different trial judge ruled that the measure violates a requirement that constitutional amendments like this one deal with only a single subject. But the high court subsequently voided that order.

Then Secretary of State Ken Bennett said a random check of petitions turned up insufficient valid signatures. That forced initiative supporters to ask Rea to restore some of the disqualified names.

Liburdi responded with his own lawsuit, contending there are enough faulty petitions to offset however many signatures Rea restores.

Rea did find in favor of the Open Government Committee, restoring 577 sample signatures which, given the 5 percent sample rate, added 11,540 valid signatures to the petitions, enough to push it over the top. And he said the number Liburdi managed to disqualify in the two hours he had was insufficient to again push the total below the legal minimum.


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