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Republican senators debate caucus versus primary

The Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City
The Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City.

JEFFERSON CITY — State Sen. Jill Carter, R-Granby, spoke in favor of her bill Monday that would return Missouri Republican voters to a system of presidential primaries rather than the caucuses hosted earlier this March.

The bill is simple, reinstating the presidential preference primary election to take place on the first Tuesday of March.

Speaking to her senate colleagues, Carter told the Senate Local Government and Elections Committee she’d been motivated by complaints from her constituents to introduce the bill.

“I don’t know about you, but I have received a lot of frustrated phone calls from citizens who are trying to figure out why we would have eliminated presidential preference primary,” Carter said.

The state’s presidential primaries, where voters choose a candidate for president on a private ballot, were replaced by a Missouri election reform law signed by Gov. Mike Parson in 2022.

Caucuses took their place and means voters come together in a communal setting to advocate for a presidential candidate before voting publicly on one.

Missouri’s 2024 presidential caucuses, held on March 2, were the first hosted since the change.

In Boone county, 263 residents arrived for the caucus, compared to 8,188 Republican ballots that were cast during the 2020 presidential preference primary.

Like Carter, many of those who testified in favor of the bill spoke about negative experiences that many caucusgoers had.

Denise Lieberman, director of the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition, highlighted how caucuses can limit voter turnout.

“When we lost our presidential preference primaries several years ago, we really constricted opportunities for Missourians to be able to make their voices heard,” Lieberman said.

Lieberman said caucuses limit turnout due to their time-consuming nature, which keeps parents and working people from easily participating. She said caucusgoers tend to be “party-Stalwarts” who can make the time necessary to participate.

Jeff Smith, representing the ACLU of Missouri, advocated for primaries as the most accessible way for residents to vote. He said that since caucuses require in-person availability, they are likely to discourage elderly and disabled voters from participating.

Sen. Sandy Crawford, R-Buffalo, was the only voice of dissent within the committee. Crawford was concerned with the taxpayer costs associated with hosting primaries — costs she said are wasteful when the primary doesn’t actually decide the presidential nominee.

Crawford’s comments are based on the ideas that the primary is only showing the voters’ preference and that the delegates sent to Republican state convention aren’t bound by law to follow the will of the voters.

“Why do you think we need to spend $6 or $7 million for something that means nothing,” Crawford asked Carter during questioning.

While going back and forth, neither senator seemed certain if delegates truly were bound to choose the same candidate their primary’s voters instructed them to. It was also unclear if Republican party rules bound these delegates and how easily those rules could be altered.

Trish Vincent, the deputy secretary from the secretary of state’s office, confirmed that Missouri would have paid $8 million to reimburse municipalities for the costs of hosting primaries in 2024.

The system of presidential preference primaries was instituted in 1998, with the first one being held for the 2000 general election.

Scott Clark, deputy chief of staff at the secretary of state’s office, said while Republican party rules make convention delegates bound to the will of their voters, these rules can be amended by the party — even after votes for a candidate have been cast.

“So even though the rules may say they are binding, rules can change,” Clark said.

An uncontroversial change made to Carter’s bill from a version from last session was to add more time between the presidential primary and annual April elections.

She said this change had been requested by county clerks, who can be overworked when two elections fall too close to each other.

The Columbia Missourian is a community news organization managed by professional editors and staffed by Missouri School of Journalism students who do the reporting, design, copy editing, information graphics, photography and multimedia.
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