PHOENIX — Arizona officials are getting tired of footing the $6 million bill for the state’s presidential primary and want to foist the cost onto the political parties as states around the country weigh the cost of the contests.
Colorado may go the other direction, bringing back state-run primaries. Utah lawmakers voted to scrap primaries in favor of caucuses in the two most recent presidential election cycles.
States have come up with various ways to handle the contests every four years, and cost is a factor.
About a third hold primaries for governor, Congress and other races at the same time as their White House primaries to save money on poll workers, locations and ballots, said Wendy Underhill, elections program director with the National Conference of State Legislatures.
A bill in the Arizona Legislature would force the parties to pay for the presidential nominating process, essentially reverting Arizona to a caucus system. Rather than walking into a booth and casting a vote in private using the primary system, caucuses involve open discussions among party members. The parties typically pay for this way of picking presidential contenders. This year 16 states will hold caucuses and 40 will hold state primaries, with five states holding some form of both. U.S. territories also hold caucuses.
Backers of the Arizona legislation, including the secretary of state, believe Democrats and Republicans — not taxpayers — should pay for an intrinsically partisan process. It’s wrong, they say, to make the public pay when the largest voting bloc in Arizona — registered independents — would have to change their registration to a particular party.
“Because it’s a closed election by law, independents can’t participate and the secretary felt that was unfair,” said Matt Roberts, spokesman for the Arizona secretary of state.
Lawmakers in Utah have to decide every four years if they want to pay for a separate presidential primary election, which costs about $3 million. The decision by Utah’s Republican-dominated Legislature depends on the politics of the race each year and whether there’s much of a contest among potential nominees in their own party. If Utah doesn’t pay, parties can run their own election or have voters choose presidential candidates at a June state-run primary where candidates for state and congressional offices are picked.
This year, Utah is holding party-run caucuses Tuesday. It left the parties on their own in 2012 and last had a primary in 2008.
Colorado held presidential primaries in the 1992, 1996, and 2000 elections, and then abandoned the idea as too expensive. But now members of both parties have tentatively agreed to push for going back to a primary after a messy caucus night this year. Caucus sites were filled to capacity, and many voters left rather than wait in long lines.
“The caucuses were a hot mess,” said Colorado state Rep. Dominick Moreno, a Democrat. “A primary, it obviously will cost money, but will also allow more people to participate in the process.”
North Carolina, which voted last week, agreed to move all other primary races up to the same day to save an expected $9.5 million for holding an extra election, and to encourage higher turnout for other contests.
The Arizona Democratic Party opposes the Republican-backed bill to do away with the primary, saying the current system allows for wider voter participation. The state’s Republican Party hasn’t taken a position on the bill, though party spokesman Tim Sifert said he understands why lawmakers would consider repealing the primary to save money.
Arizona has not considered holding presidential primaries with those nominating contests for other offices. The state primary is in August after the national party conventions, where candidates are officially chosen, and the secretary of state’s office couldn’t move up that primary without also changing a law that requires the presidential preference nomination to be the only thing on the ballot, Roberts said.
But 2016 will be a more costly year for taxpayers in Arizona when it comes to election bills.
Voters in some cities will head to the polls at least five separate times. Some municipal contests were March 8, to be followed by Tuesday’s presidential primary, a May 17 statewide special election to decide on school funding and pension measures, the August primary for state offices and the November general election, when the president will be elected.
“You’d think they could get a calendar and put them all together,” said Joanne Markis, 57, a Tempe resident who will vote on five occasions this year.
But Markis, who has only missed a vote twice in her life, doesn’t want to do away with primaries. She said moving to a caucus system could disenfranchise voters who have to work, or can’t get to a caucus site for other reasons.
“I think the idea of the voting having to be a public statement really defeats a lot of what I like about private ballots,” she said.