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To many, Prop. 121 levels playing field for independents

PHOENIX — Brent Fine took time off work and spent three months gathering 1,768 signatures in order to run as an independent candidate for state House in a Phoenix-area district.

The Democrat and Republican candidates for District 18 had to collect a minimum of 389 and 504 signatures to get on the primary ballot, respectively, according to the Arizona Secretary of State. For Fine, who has no primary as an independent, the minimum to get on the general election ballot was 1,351.

“Most candidates can’t afford to do that,” Fine said. “Lowering the requirements of the signatures would make a big difference.”

Proposition 121, dubbed the Open Elections/Open Government Act, would replace the current partisan primary system with a single primary that advances the top vote-getters regardless of party. It would also require that all candidates collect the same number of signatures.

“The initiative would equal the playing field,” Fine said.

The current signature requirement to qualify for a primary is equal to one-half of 1 percent of those registered in the party across Arizona for statewide and U.S. Senate races, and 1 percent of those registered in that party within a district for candidates running for state legislative races or races for U.S. representative.

Independent candidates in all scenarios must gather an amount equal to 3 percent of registered voters not affiliated with an established party.

Besides Fine, there are two other independent candidates in the general election, both also running for the state Legislature.

“Proposition 121 addresses the discrimination that exists with independent candidates and independent voters today,” said former Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson, a leader of the Open Government Committee, which put forward the measure. “It does that by changing the rules to say that all candidates and all voters must be treated the same regardless of how they’re registered.”

In addition to having to gather more signatures, independent candidates currently have to pay for costly voter registration lists that state law requires counties to provide for free to political parties.

State law also requires that independent candidates be listed after partisan candidates in races on the general election.

Among its provisions, Proposition 121 would require that all candidates get equal treatment under statutes and regulations governing elections regardless of party affiliation or lack thereof.

About a third of Arizona’s registered voters aren’t affiliated with political parties, and that share has grown steadily in recent years. Those vote primary elections.

“Prop. 121 ensures that candidates have to address all voters — Democrats, Republicans and independents,” Johnson said.

Doug Quelland, an independent running for Arizona State Senate in a north Phoenix district, said that Proposition 121 would allow all Arizonans to choose the candidates that end up on the general ballot.

“From an independent standpoint I’m not particularly enthralled with helping independents, Republicans or Democrats,” Quelland said. “I want to help Arizonans, and if this passes I think that it will help Arizonans.”

In 2009, the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission removed Quelland, then a Republican state representative, from office after accusing him of exceeding spending limits he agreed to in return for public campaign money.

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, who heads Save Our Vote, the main group opposing Proposition 121, called the benefits for independents “illusory.” He noted that California, which has a system similar to that proposed by Proposition 121, now has fewer independents on general election ballots.

“If you’re a challenger under an open primary, it’s almost cost-prohibitive to be able to get that kind of exposure,” Montgomery said. “It necessarily gives an advantage to the two dominant political parties.”

Barbara Norrander, a political science professor at the University of Arizona, said even with the change proposed by Proposition 121 independent candidates would continue to lack attention unless they spend a lot of their own money.

“They’re going to face the same hurdles they face now in terms of getting their message out,” Norrander said.