JEFFERSON CITY — Two proposals in the Missouri House would change the primary election process in the state, one by restricting participation to registered party members, the other by eliminating presidential primaries entirely.
Rep. Dan Stacy, R-Blue Springs, said during a committee hearing Wednesday his proposal to switch Missouri to a “closed” primary system will help prevent “tactical voting” by members of opposing political parties.
Currently, Missourians of any party, or no party, can choose which party’s ballot they would like in a primary election.
That means they could select an opposing party ballot and vote for the candidate they consider the weakest or the closest to their views, even if they intend to vote against that candidate in the general election, Stacy said.
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“Even though the Kiwanis Club doesn’t allow Rotary Club members to vote in their officer elections, private political parties are currently required by law to allow their opposing party, those that clearly do not embrace their parties’ principles, to vote in their elections,” he said.
Stacy’s proposal would require people to affiliate with a party before they can vote in a primary election. People could change the affiliation at any time, but could only participate in a primary if the change occurred 23 weeks or more before an election.
Past and present leadership of Missouri’s Republican Party testified in favor of the bill, expressing concerns about “election raiding” and arguing a closed primary equally benefits Democrats.
Abby Olson, a resident from Platte County, also testified in favor of the bill.
She said enthusiastic Republicans like her who work hard to support the party “do not want their vote diluted by a drop-in voter, or a swing voter, or an independent voter.”
When politicians have to court those voters in primaries, their positions swing toward the middle and become “mush,” she said. “Let’s have two firm sides.”
But some at the meeting argued voters who don’t align strictly with those two sides should still have the opportunity to participate.
Rep. Peggy McGaugh, R-Carrollton, said she worried about voters who would feel confused and disenfranchised if they arrived at the polls and learned they couldn’t vote in a primary at all because they hadn’t registered with a party.
Unaffiliated voters could still vote on nonpartisan ballot issues, but McGaugh said those ballot issues don’t exist in every election.
McGaugh also said voters in her home county genuinely want to support candidates across party lines in certain cases.
If the proposal passes, “down-ballot people won’t get votes from church members or neighbors that aren’t in the same party,” she said. “In Carroll County people vote for the person and not for the party.”
For example, all the candidates for certain local offices might file as Republicans, meaning Democrats would get no say at all in who wins those elections, McGaugh said.
Rep. Kevin Windham, D-Hillsdale, said African Americans in particular have had a difficult history with both political parties and may prefer to support individuals they trust from either party rather than strongly affiliating one way.
They “aren’t necessarily tied to a political party as much as to a policy that is going to do them right,” Windham said.
House Democrats, Black Caucus leadership and voting rights advocates have objected to many of the other voting-related proposals moving through the Legislature, including those requiring photo IDs, and have argued they have a disproportionate negative effect on racial minorities.
Rep. Donna Baringer, D-St. Louis, said she is worried about the cost of the proposal to local governments.
The St. Louis County Board of Elections estimated a $50,000 cost to the county in a fiscal analysis of the proposal. The city of St. Louis did not give input for the fiscal note, but Baringer said the city might have to purchase expensive new voting machines.
McGaugh asked if it would be fair for the political parties to take on some of the cost of the closed primary system.
The Missouri Association of County Clerks and Election Authorities opposes the legislation.
But both the association and McGaugh supported a different change to the primary system: eliminating the presidential preference primaries.
Rep. Adam Schwadron, R-St. Charles, said he was sponsoring the proposal because presidential primaries cost at least $7 million each year and don’t create binding results. The political party is not required to follow the will of the primary voters when selecting a candidate.
“That is money that could be spent better elsewhere,” he said.
“I love this bill,” McGaugh said. “It is time for people to realize that we need to lessen the amount of elections in the state of Missouri, especially ones that have no real meaning.”
Opponents of eliminating the presidential primary have argued it would make it more difficult for the average person to be involved with selecting a candidate.
A measure eliminating the primary was removed from another elections bill this year during debate on the House floor.