The Partisan System: should you be required to join a party to vote?

President George Washington warned us about parties: “The common mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.”

Paul Johnson

Paul Johnson

Washington and the Founders believed that wise leaders focused on the public interest are most likely to appear if they avoid the divisiveness of “faction” created by political parties.

To any wise person, it is clear that we have moved far away from the ideal framed by our Founders.

Today, political parties are not just the most visible players in our democracy, they write the rules, control the process and decide who can participate and who cannot.

And the public is not happy. Poll after poll reports the American people want elected officials to act in the public interest, not in their party’s interest.

Disdain for partisanship is evident as large numbers of Americans abandon the political parties and register as independents.  In Arizona, independents are now 35 percent of registered voters – more than either party.

Why does the partisan system fail to match the will of the general public?

It is because most elected officials are chosen in primaries where less than 5 percent of the public vote in either primary.  Stacked districts eliminate any real competition in the General Election.  So these politicians never really face a majority of the public.

Of 435 elected members of Congress, only 35 come from districts with real competition in the General Election. That means that a small minority of people has control over the direction of the United States. In Arizona 90 percent of legislators come from equally uncompetitive districts.

Meanwhile, nonpartisan voters are treated unequally: they must re-register every election to receive an early ballot in a primary, and independent candidates must collect ten times the signatures for the same office as their partisan counterparts.

And parties take taxpayer dollars from independents to fund their primary elections while some attempt to prevent independents from even voting in the primary.

Arizona needs a system that grants the right of every voter to vote in every election.  In 2016 Arizona voters will have a choice to adopt a measure designed to pull people together as opposed to split them apart. It’s our only hope of heeding Washington’s advice to discourage and restrain the partisanship that is undermining our republic.

Paul Johnson, former mayor of Phoenix, is chairman of The Nonpartisan Movement’s 501c4 in Arizona: the Open Nonpartisan Elections Committee. For more information, visit

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