Arizona voters are entitled to decide if they want to scrap the current partisan system of nominating candidates, the state Supreme Court ruled Friday.
In a brief order, the justices overturned a lower court ruling which concluded that the initiative to create a wide-open primary was constitutionally flawed. Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Mark Brain had said it illegally dealt with more than one subject.
The justices did not explain their decision, promising details later.
Friday's ruling is a significant victory for proponents of the radical change which would have all candidates from all political stripes run against each other for statewide, legislative and county supervisor posts. It also would overrule Tucson's partisan primary for mayor and council.
Then the top two would face off in the November general election.
But the Supreme Court action does not mean the "Open Government/Open Elections'' initiative actually will be on the November ballot.
County election officials are still reviewing a random sample of initiative petition sheets to verify that there are at least 259,213 valid signatures to put the issue on the November ballot. And some preliminary numbers from the state's largest county suggest the petition drive could fall short.
Maricopa County Elections Director Karen Osborne told Capitol Media Services she has checked 12,990 of the 13,076 signatures sent to her. Of those screened, 4,280 are invalid for an validity rate of about 67 percent.
Matt Roberts, spokesman for the Secretary of State's Office, said after clearly invalid petitions were removed, that left more than 358,000 signatures. And a 33 percent failure rate, if that proves to be the final number, would leave just about 240,000 valid signers, short of the 259,213 needed to qualify for the ballot.
But Tom Milton, the campaign manager, said he believes that Maricopa County is much tougher on its checks than other counties, and that the results from elsewhere will provide enough names to qualify.
If Pima County is any indication, that appears to be the case: Elections Director Chris Roads said late Friday that the failure rate of the samples sent to his county is running in the 23 percent range.
If there are enough signatures, that would pave the way for finally debating the issue on its merits.
Supporters contend the change will result in general election candidates whose views are more mainstream than those who currently are nominated by only the voters from each party, as the contenders will have to have broad appeal to even get through the primary.
Attorney Mike Liburdi, who represents challengers, scoffed at claims this will make the political system work better.
"These same people who are presenting open government are the same people who presented term limits,'' he said, which caps the number of years any statewide officer or legislator can serve in the same office. "That didn't fix the problem.''
Liburdi said the Citizens Clean Elections Act allowing candidates to get public funding for their campaigns "brought us more extremism and more ideology in the Legislature.'' And he criticized creation of the Independent Redistricting Commission, saying all that did was move the duty of drawing lines for congressional and legislative districts from the Legislature to having the process "orchestrated behind closed doors.''
Milton said no one is claiming this measure will totally reform politics.
"This is not a silver bullet,'' he said. "We believes this is a reform that takes us in the right direction.''
And Milton said that, no matter how people feel about those other changes, it's unfair to compare this measure to any of them. A better comparison, he said, would be other changes that have occurred over the years, including giving women the right to vote, lowering the voting age to 18, and allowing people to vote by mail rather than having to go to the polls on election day.
"We've made reforms that were so dramatic and did affect the process so much, we don't even see them as reforms now,'' Milton said.
By contrast, he said, things like term limits and public financing were focused on limits on what candidates can do. "Our initiative is opening the process.''
Liburdi's initial clients were interests aligned with the Republican Party whose candidates hold all statewide offices with the exception of two of the five seats on the Arizona Corporation Commission, and big majorities in the state House and Senate. Jaime Molera, a lobbyist and former GOP candidate for statewide office, said the party system works because it gives voters some idea of the general principles of the candidate.
But two Hispanic Democrats also joined in the legal challenge. Rep. Steve Gallardo of Phoenix and Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox said they are concerned the change being proposed would allow Anglo candidates to "game'' the system, making it harder to elect minority candidates, even in districts where they are a plurality or majority.