Presidential caucus has some Missouri Republicans worried about accessibility

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The Missouri Republican Party will conduct its selection process through in-person caucuses in each county March 2. Attendance is mandatory to participate, and voters must sign a pledge stating their loyalty to the Republican party (Getty Images).

Some Boone County Republicans — as well as some state and party officials — are voicing concerns about the party’s March 2 presidential caucus, the first of its kind in Missouri since 2012.

Voters face a confusing landscape as the state’s major political parties are being forced to find new ways of nominating presidential candidates after the legislature voted in 2022 to eliminate funding for a presidential preference primary.

The Missouri Republican Party will conduct its selection process through in-person caucuses in each county March 2. Attendance is mandatory to participate, and voters must sign a pledge stating their loyalty to the Republican party.

Democrats can get a mail-in ballot or vote in person March 23. Libertarians will hold a party conference Feb. 24 in St. Louis to send delegates to a national convention where the presidential nominee choice will be made.

At a Boone County Pachyderms meeting in January, some voters aired their frustrations with the state’s Republican caucus system. One voter said her mother, who lives in a nursing home and has always voted, feels disenfranchised because she will not be able to participate due to the caucus’ in-person nature. She said that she is worried for older Republicans who may not be able to attend the caucus.

Another voter who did not have access to a smart phone said he felt abandoned by the Republican Party. He expressed frustration at the party for encouraging online pre-registration, and said the caucus did not make sense to him.

Because the Republican caucus requires attendance and takes place on just one day — as opposed to early and mail-in options that most elections offer — some voters will be left out, Boone County Clerk Brianna Lennon said.

“Those guardrails of the election system that a lot of people are used to — the requirements that things are accessible, the requirements that there’s an absentee component to things — none of that is part of this process,” Lennon said. “The caucus system is, by default, a more exclusionary process.”

Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft raised concerns that the system will prevent Missourians stationed overseas on military duty from participating in the Republican presidential nominating process. He criticized the state’s political parties for failing to inform voters about the changes sooner.

“I was really worried that there didn’t seem to be a good understanding by the people of the state that we were moving away from the presidential primary, and how they could participate,” Ashcroft said.

Ashcroft said the state’s political parties “have turned a corner on” providing information for him to distribute to voters. He said he went from asking party officials for information, to “nagging” them.

Missouri legislators voted to cut funding for presidential preference primaries in 2022 as part of a larger election bill that passed without support from any Democratic lawmakers. The bill made sweeping changes to the way elections are run in the state, including the addition of a photo identification requirement to vote.

Many legislators who supported the presidential preference primary’s removal did so in hopes of reducing state spending. Republican state Rep. Cheri Toalson Reisch of Hallsville said the original system would have cost the state $11 million. Now, election costs will be taken on by the state’s political parties.

“It doesn’t necessarily save money, it just shifts the cost away from the state and to the political parties within the state,” said MU College Republicans Executive Director Trey Faucheux at the Boone County Pachyderms Club meeting.

Since the change was approved by the legislature, there have been signs that Republicans were having second thoughts about eliminating the primary. There were several unsuccessful attempts in the state legislature last year to revive Missouri’s presidential preference primary. One bill was introduced by Republican Sen. Mary Elizabeth Coleman of Arnold, who’s now running for a U.S. congressional seat that includes part of Columbia. At least three bills to reinstate the presidential primary have been introduced in this legislative session.

“This is what we’re stuck with, basically,” Faucheux told Pachyderms members. “We hope that the legislature will come back and reinstate the primary at some point in the near future.”

Lennon, Boone County’s top elections official, thinks that will happen.

“If I was a betting woman, I would say that this process will be reverted back to a presidential preference election by the time we get to 2028,” Lennon said.

Missouri’s presidential preference primary is costly because it’s held on a separate day from the elections to pick nominees for other races on the ballot, such as U.S. Senate, Congress and state officers. Primary day for those offices is in August, well past the date when presidential nominees are decided.

Lennon suggests holding the presidential primary on the same day as Missouri municipal elections, which occur in the spring.

“In my absolutely perfect world, I would consolidate the March presidential preference election with the April,” Lennon said. “There is no reason why we can’t do that, but the parties like to have individual ballots.”

Lennon said in this ideal situation, she would prefer non-party style ballots where voters may choose from a comprehensive list of every candidate. She said that this proposal wouldn’t increase costs and could potentially increase voter turnout.

Ashcroft said fiscal concerns weren’t the only reason for eliminating the presidential primary.

“There were a lot of reasons (for the change), I think money was one of them,” Ashcroft said. “I think people were concerned about Democrats voting in Republican primaries, and Republicans voting in Democratic primaries. It happens on all sides.”

However, Lennon pointed out that unaffiliated voters may participate in multiple presidential contests because they are taking place on separate days.

Republican caucus

Modeled after the Iowa and Nevada caucuses, the Missouri Republican caucus will feature volunteers and paid staffers advocating on behalf of presidential candidates. Volunteers and staffers will give oral presentations to participants, who will then divide themselves into groups based on their preferred candidate.

If any group has less than 15% of the total votes in the room, the group and it’s candidate are eliminated. Eliminated voters may join another candidate’s group, and votes are then recounted.

After votes are taken, the caucus will discuss the Republican party platform. Voters may introduce amendments to the party platform, and if an amendment receives a majority of participants’ support, it will move on to the Congressional district convention for further consideration in April.

Boone County’s GOP caucus will be held at 10 a.m. March 2 at the Family Worship Center, 4925 E. Bonne Femme Church Road in Columbia. Doors will open at 9 a.m

Democratic primary

The Missouri Democratic Party is opting for a primary election with mail-in votes encouraged and in-person voting available at limited locations on the morning of March 23. Mail-in ballots can be requested through March 12 on the party’s website or by phone. Missouri Democrats Executive Director Matthew Patterson contends his party’s process will enfranchise more people than the caucus system the Missouri Republicans opted for.

“The old style caucus … excludes people from the system and from being able to have their voices heard,” said Patterson.

The Democrats will accept mail-in ballots until 10 a.m. March 23. The Boone County Democratic Party will host in-person voting from 8 a.m. to noon March 23 at Columbia’s Activity and Recreation Center, 1701 Ash St. The party will begin counting ballots March 23 and plans to announce its winner by March 28.

Libertarian Party process

The Libertarian Party will run a third-party presidential candidate this year, as well. Candidates for president and vice president will be chosen by Libertarian delegates at the party’s national convention in Washington D.C. in May.

Randy Langkraehr, vice chair of the Missouri Libertarian Party, said that changes to the Republican presidential selection process have had no influence on the strategy of his party.

“At the state level, we have done absolutely nothing about this,” Langkraehr said. “We do not want to try to infiltrate, and we don’t want to try to be Republican. We don’t want to be Democrats. We want to be Libertarian.”

Langkraehr encouraged Missourians to contact the party and apply to be delegates for Missouri’s state party convention, which will take place 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Feb. 24 at the Holiday Inn Earth City in St. Louis.

There, party delegates will choose from amongst themselves who to send to the national convention, where delegates will choose a presidential candidate.

Missourian reporters Camden Doherty and Quinn Coffman contributed to this story.

This story originally appeared in the Columbia Missourian. It can be republished in print or online. 

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