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Missouri GOP and Democrats to take different paths in selecting presidential delegates

An illustration of voting booths is displayed. The booths are dark blue with white curtains and red outlining. There is one person in a voting booth and another walking out wearing a pin with an American flag.
Nat Thomas | St. Louis Public Radio

If there’s one thing that’s united the Missouri Republican and Democratic parties, it’s frustration that the state is no longer responsible for running presidential primaries next year.

Because the legislature failed to reinstate a system in which county election officials are responsible for running the process, the two parties are taking different paths. Democrats are trying to run something similar to a primary, while Republicans will have a caucus like what happens in Iowa.

This isn't the preference of Missouri Democrats, said party Chairman Russ Carnahan.

“The state-run primary is what we should have. But we don’t,” Carnahan said. “And so, how do we make the best of a really pile-of-crap situation?”

Chris Grahn-Howard, who wrote the rules for the Missouri GOP on how the caucus will unfold next March, agreed with Carnahan’s assessment.

“Because a caucus by definition is an exclusionary event,” Grahn-Howard said. “When the legislature didn't pass this, they disenfranchised every Republican who serves overseas in the military or can’t be there on that specific day. Because with a caucus, you have to not only be there on that day, but you have to be there at that specific time. And you have to stay there.”

Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, a Republican, said earlier this year that getting rid of the state-run primary made sense, because it was expensive and didn’t bind the parties to actually divide delegates based on the results.

“We should not have a primary election where we tell people to vote but their votes don’t matter — and then we have a caucus,” Ashcroft said during an April episode of Politically Speaking.

Grahn-Howard said that at least for Republicans, the primary did determine how delegates were allocated in 2016 and 2020. “I know that because I wrote those rules too,” he said.

In any case, both parties are now laying out plans for how next year’s presidential selection process will unfold.

Voters take to the polls on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022, during the Midterm election at the Ballwin Golf Course and Events Center in Ballwin.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Voters take to the polls on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022, during the Midterm election at the Ballwin Golf Course and Events Center in Ballwin.

Missouri Democrats plan party-run primary

In some respects, the process for Democrats will be similar to the previous system. The party will set up polling places on March 23, 2024, a Saturday, at counties around the state. Democratic voters will also be able to request a mail-in ballot from the party starting in February 2024 — which will count if it arrives by 10 a.m. March 23.

“And for anybody that has a job conflict or child care conflict or is disabled or in the military or any of the number of reasons why people couldn't show up at a meeting to vote on a Saturday, we decided that was an important add-on to this process,” Carnahan said.

One difference is that the party could wind up using what’s known as ranked choice voting if there are more than two candidates.Had Missouri had a state-run presidential primary, that wouldn’t have been possible to implement.

Carnahan said a private vendor will end up tabulating the votes. Delegates are awarded based on the percentage of the vote that candidates receive in the preference primary.

He added that there will be some expense for the party organizing the primary, compared to having county election officials be responsible for the process.

“I think there'll be little to no cost in terms of the locations to do those events,” Carnahan said. “There will be a cost with mailing and a vendor to do the tabulation and screening. And we think that's something that is doable with our budget. We believe that extra expenses are worth it to provide people that access and the ability, frankly, to feel like they're part of the selection process.”

Former President Donald Trump points out the media on Saturday, June 25, 2022, at a “Save America!” Rally at the Adams County Fairgrounds in Mendon, Ill.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Former President Donald Trump points out the media on Saturday, June 25, 2022, at a “Save America!” Rally at the Adams County Fairgrounds in Mendon, Ill.

Iowa-style caucus for GOP

Grahn-Howard said the Republican caucus on March 2 will resemble how Iowa selects delegates.

He said Republicans will show up to designated caucus sites across the state. They’ll elect a chair and secretary, who will then go over the rules. Unlike past caucuses, Grahn-Howard said, the rules will be the same everywhere and there will be no ability for people to try to change them.

Once nominations for president take place, the chair of the caucus will direct supporters of that candidate to go to different parts of the room. After a vote is taken, Grahn-Howard said, any candidate receiving 15% or less of the total vote is out — and supporters of the eliminated candidate can then realign themselves with whoever has survived that first round.

“So hypothetically, let's say Mike Pence gets nominated. And he gets four votes, and he's out,” said Grahn-Howard. “And so those four people get the opportunity to align with Donald Trump or [Florida Gov.] Ron DeSantis or [South Carolina Sen.] Tim Scott or whoever. Then that vote is taken.”

If any one of those candidates has 50% plus one, then they win all of the delegates to the state and congressional district conventions. Grahn-Howard also said it’s possible if a candidate doesn’t get 50% plus one for a proportional slate of delegates to move on to congressional district and state conventions.

Differing stakes?

Republicans have a multitude of candidates running in 2024, including some like DeSantis and Scott who have raised considerable sums of money. But Trump is leading in most of the polls and won Missouri by huge margins during his 2016 and 2020 runs.

Grahn-Howard, though, said because of the way the caucus system works, it may be possible for non-Trump candidates to get delegates.

“If I’m the second-tier front-runner behind Donald Trump, assuming he's still in the race, I'm coming to Missouri because I can pick up delegates,” Grahn-Howard said. “They could all come here and pick up some delegates at the congressional level to have bargaining chips at the national convention.”

While there are at least two candidates on the Democratic side, Marianne Williamson and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., running against President Joe Biden, neither is expected to pose a serious challenge to the incumbent’s ability to get nominated. But in the event Biden changed course and decided against running again, the field of Democrats angling to replace him could be sizable.

Carnahan said if that happens there would likely be several months of lead time before the primary occurs.

“It's not like it's going to be sprung on us a few days ahead of time. It'll be many, many months ahead of time,” Carnahan said. “And we’ll have the ability to adjust to the circumstances as needed.”

Copyright 2023 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Since entering the world of professional journalism in 2006, Jason Rosenbaum dove head first into the world of politics, policy and even rock and roll music. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, Rosenbaum spent more than four years in the Missouri State Capitol writing for the Columbia Daily Tribune, Missouri Lawyers Media and the St. Louis Beacon.
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