The story behind one of 2012’s great election results

Warren Severin
Arizona LP State Chair

In a major strategic victory for the Libertarian Party, Arizona voters soundly rejected the state’s Prop 121 initiative, which would have excluded all but the top two vote-getters of the primary elections from the general election.

Similar initiatives that passed in prior election years in Washington, Louisiana, and California have been destructive to the LP in those states. Not only do they serve to exclude Libertarians from general elections; in some cases, they have also resulted in allowing only one party’s candidate to be on the general election ballot, usually a Democrat.

This defeat of top-two stops a dangerous trend and shows that voters, when properly informed, say ‘No’ to excluding challengers of the status quo.

Arizona is the second state where top-two has gone down at the polls. A similar initiative in Oregon lost in 2008.

The Arizona LP played a critical role in this monumental victory. Here’s the story told by LP state chair, Warren Severin:

“It started as an uphill fight and it stayed that way, all the way. And, we won!” Severin said.

“Mid-summer of 2011, an ex-mayor of Phoenix decided that what was good for California surely must be good for Arizona. So, he began a ballot initiative to amend the Arizona Constitution to replace much of Arizona’s election code (‘Title 16’) with a top-two system. Unlike a legislative change, a constitutional amendment is the way to get something implemented so that it isn’t easily reversed a few years down the road, when folks figure out it was a bad idea. And, a ballot initiative is a sneaky way to implement a Constitutional amendment. Instead of requiring a two-thirds majority to pass in the legislature, it takes a mere 50 percent of voters at the polls.

“There was serious money, by Arizona standards, behind the duplicitously named ‘Open Government Committee’ and their Proposition 121. Overall the committee spent over $1.3 million to get the measure on the ballot and publicize it.

“Arizona’s major media outlets, including the Arizona Republic, lined up behind Prop 121, running favorable editorials and letters to the editor throughout the campaign.

“The pro publicity was extremely effective. In November 2011, one year before the election, Arizona State University Morrison Institute for Public Policy conducted a poll to gauge the support for such an initiative. The poll showed that voters who had an opinion were 2:1 in favor of the initiative.

“Opposition to Prop 121 started with a heads-up email from then-LNC chair Mark Hinkle to me, the Arizona state chair, noting that a top-two ballot proposition had been filed with the Arizona secretary of state the day before. Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News, quickly made contact with the Arizona LP (AZLP) to offer his help. A joint meeting of the AZLP and Arizona Green Party (AZGP) boards was quickly convened in my living room. Richard Winger flew in for the meeting. At that meeting, it was agreed that AZLP and AZGP would join forces in opposition to the proposition. While we would not speak for each other, we would at every opportunity reinforce our joint opposition, and we would collaborate on opportunities to do so. We very quickly found another ally, the League of Women Voters of Arizona.

“There was tight communication between these groups for the duration of the fight. All opportunities for speaking and written opposition were quickly communicated among us. We all took every opportunity, whether online or in the printed press or public speaking. Winger provided documentation and historical context. Before long, the press took note that there was tightly knit opposition. In Arizona, the secretary of state publishes a booklet of pro and con statements about the various resolutions, mailed to every voter. The AZLP alone was responsible for three separate statements in that booklet.

“Reinforcements began to arrive. Meetings with local Tea Parties were fruitful. Mark Rogalski, a local activist lawyer, joined the team. Mark successfully petitioned the secretary of state to have the wording of Prop 121 on the ballot and in the voter guide changed to something fair to both the proponents and opponents.

“This was critical to informing voters of what they were voting for. Wording that favored proponents in the California and Washington ballot initiatives may be the biggest reason they passed in those states.

“Americans for Responsible Leadership, a group of conservative Arizona business leaders, formed a group called Save Our Vote Arizona. This group and Michael Liburdi provided legal counsel during the summer. Court challenges were launched on two fronts — the constitutionality of the proposition in regard to Arizona’s ‘single subject’ rule for ballot propositions as well as the legitimacy of the signatures on the petitions. Although both actions failed, they raised public awareness.

“Local Ron Paul supporters began to see the detrimental effects that Prop 121 would have on the broader Freedom Movement and took up the fight against top-two.

“Christina Tobin and her Free and Equal Elections Foundation were valuable. Christina herself made a tour through Arizona in opposition to Prop 121, speaking at the Goldwater Institute and a host of other venues all across the state.

“By late summer unofficial polls rumored that Prop 121 might be in trouble. Then, the icing on the cake — in October, Save Our Vote Arizona put $400,000 into a final anti–Prop 121 mail advertising campaign.

“On election day, the results were profound. The proposition that had started a year earlier with 2:1 voter approval lost by a 2:1 margin, despite the fact that the proponents outspent the opposition by 3:1. We all pulled together with good communication and cooperation, and the electoral process performed as it should. Sometimes I think the system might just work.”