Arizona Democrats debate opening primary to independents

PHOENIX (AP) — A group of independents and some Democrats are making a longshot push to convince the Arizona Democratic Party to open its presidential primary to voters who decline to join a political party.

The effort is forcing Democratic activists to weigh their inclusive values against fears of conservative meddling.

Supporters say independent voters shouldn't be excluded from a crucial step in selecting the president, particularly when the election is publicly funded. But many Democrats are uneasy about giving power in deciding their party's nominee to people who've chosen not to belong to the party.

Some worry supporters of President Donald Trump would help choose his 2020 opponent and note anyone who wants to vote in the Democratic primary can register as a Democrat.

"Do you believe in representative democracy, or not?" said Dennis Flaherty, a 78-year-old independent voter. Flaherty is working with Independent Voting, a New York-based advocacy group trying to convince state political parties to open their primaries.

Nearly 1.3 million people in Arizona are not registered with a political party. They can vote in all Arizona elections except the March 17 presidential preference election, including a state primary in August when the Republican and Democratic nominees are chosen for state and local offices.

Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes, the county's top election official and the most prominent Democratic publicly supporting a more open primary, said it would eliminate confusion among independents who are used to voting in state primaries.

"This is about the voters, not about the political parties," Fontes said. "If we had one set of rules, it would be easier to understand, and more people would get to vote."

Approximately 800 members of the Arizona Democratic Party's state committee will debate the issue Saturday in Prescott and may vote to support including independents.

Even if the party leaders support an open primary, a legal fight looms because presidential preference elections are by law limited to members of the political party.

Fontes and his supporters believe it's unconstitutional, citing a 1986 U.S. Supreme Court case in which the justices struck down a Connecticut law barring that state's Democratic Party from opening its primary. But the Arizona restriction remains on the books until it's repealed or invalidated by a judge.

Fontes sees two possible routes: the governor could call a special session for the Republican-led Legislature to change the law. More likely, the Democratic Party could work out a settlement with the secretary of state and ask a federal judge to ratify it.

Sophia Solis, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, declined to comment on how Hobbs would respond if Democrats want to open their primary but said Hobbs is "generally supportive" because it would reduce confusion.

State committee member Cathy Hozian said she's torn about letting independents into the primary but is leaning against it. She worries some Trump backers would vote for the weakest Democrat.

"We believe in democracy, we believe in inclusivity," said Hozian. "However, you don't know what you're going to get with an independent. I hope the majority of them are sane, but I know that there are some crazies out there because I've talked to them."

The Republican Party is not holding a primary next year.

Through a spokesman, Democratic Chairwoman Felecia Rotellini declined an interview request.