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House advances bill reinstating presidential primary

by Ryan Pivoney | March 31, 2023 at 4:00 a.m.

Legislation to restore Missouri's presidential primary is inching closer to law after a House panel advanced the measure Wednesday.

The House Special Committee on Public Policy combined two identical bills that would return Missouri to a presidential primary system and ditch the caucus system implemented by lawmakers last year. The combined bill was amended and approved, setting it up to soon be considered by the full House chamber.

"It doesn't matter what we did last year, the people have spoken what they want," said Rep. Rudy Veit, a Wardsville Republican sponsoring the bill. "We all sometimes have to look back and see what we did. Maybe people just didn't see the whole picture, whatever. But now the people have spoken what they wanted, and it's very loud and clear."

Veit said he fully anticipates the bill will cross the finish line, "considering that we had probably 30 people testifying, we had 80 letters written in support of the bill. We had the Republican and Democratic Party chairmen in favor of it, and we had various other entities, from labors to the League of Women Voters, all in support of it."

Missouri had a presidential primary for more than 20 years. The state switched last year after a provision was added to an omnibus elections bill. It changed how voters in the state decide who each party nominates for presidential elections.

Caucuses are run by political parties and gather registered members of those parties together to assign delegates to candidates. Instead of a ballot, caucuses may require voters to publicly identify the candidate they support and divide themselves into different sections of a room.

Primaries, the method Missourians used in 2020, are run by the state and rules for participation are determined by laws. Missouri had an open primary system, meaning voters didn't have to register affiliation with a party before picking a ballot to vote.

Immediately after the law changing Missouri to a presidential caucus state was signed, a bipartisan group of lawmakers voiced their plans to roll back the move. Veit was among the most vocal of the group.

Veit's bill, HB 347, would reinstate the presidential primary election to the second Tuesday after the first Monday in March of a presidential election year. It mirrors another House bill and a companion Senate bill, SB 602 sponsored by Sen. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, R-Arnold. The bill received a public hearing earlier in the month.

If approved, lawmakers will have switched the state from a presidential primary system to a caucus system and back again before voters used the caucus system.

Veit said he hasn't yet received a commitment from chamber leaders on when the bill will be brought up for consideration on the House floor because he was focused on getting it through committee first.

With the bill slated for the House floor, Veit said he's turning more attention across the building to ensure it gets an easy path in the Senate.

"The senators I've talked to seem to give me a fairly warm reception," he said. "All these people have spoken. It's not a Republican bill, it's not a Democratic bill, it's a bipartisan bill, and it's really just protecting the right to vote and have your voice heard."

Coleman's bill in the Senate was first read Feb. 6 but has not seen any action since.

Veit said he's hopeful Coleman will handle the House bill in the Senate, adding it would be in good hands because "if she gets involved in something, she goes at it with her whole heart."

"We've just got to get the bill to her for her to start moving," he said.

"I think that the Senate will also be on board, and we hope we get this to the governor," Veit continued. "Otherwise, we will have no one voting for the president next year in the primary -- and our next year's presidential primaries could be very, very contested in both parties."

Coleman did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

Besides Missouri, only Iowa, Nevada, North Dakota and Wyoming use caucuses to select their presidential nominees. Several states abandoned the process between 2016 and 2020, including Maine, Minnesota, Colorado and Utah.

The primary criticism of caucus systems is that they tend to discourage voter participation because they are time consuming. Colorado, for example, saw about six times as many voters participate in its 2020 primary than its 2016 caucus.

The Iowa caucuses, which officially kick off the presidential election season, caused confusion in 2020 after internal breakdowns delayed results and had multiple Democrat candidates seeming to claim victory.

If the Legislature doesn't act this session, Veit said he would expect "an interesting environment" around elections in the state. Veit said people have an expectation they will be able to vote for who their party nominates for president every four years.

"I think it will disillusion a lot of people, more than they are now in our political affiliation and political process," he said.

Missouri previously used presidential caucuses in 1992 and 1996 but has used primaries since the 2000 election. Primary results are nonbinding, however, meaning parties could choose to respect the vote results or send delegates to support other candidates not selected by voters.

The Secretary of State's Office, which is responsible for overseeing elections in the state, has been involved in the process to restore the presidential primary.

Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft was an outspoken supporter of the law that switched to a caucus system. He said he doesn't care whether the state uses a caucus or primary system, as long as it's binding.

"I'm really hoping we don't go back to a preference primary," he said. "I'm hoping that if we do go back to having a primary, we'll get rid of the caucuses, and we'll actually pick the delegates through the primary."

He said he will follow whatever system the Legislature puts in place.

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