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Some lawmakers want to have a caucus rather than primary

March 06, 2000
By: Jennifer Lutz
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Faced with predictions of only a 30 percent voter turnout for today's presidential primary in Missouri, some state lawmakers argue it may be time to go back to the old caucus system.

"It doesn't help the state by spending $3 million to have an election that will be swept by New York and California," said Rep. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia.

Graham sponsored a bill last year to eliminate the presidential primary saying it was nothing more than a "beauty contest."

Boone County Clerk Wendy Noren agrees that taxpayers should not foot the $3.5 million bill for a statewide election for what amounts to a party function.

"The party should pay for it rather than the taxpayers," Noren said.

When Missouri had a caucus the individual parties paid for all of its own expenses. Noren said some other primary states, such as South Carolina and Texas, have the party pay for costs rather than the taxpayers.

The four major Presidential candidates have made stops in Missouri, but the visits usually lasted only a few hours. One reason for the short trips is because Missouri competes with many other states on this "Super Tuesday." Missouri is sandwiched between high delegate states such as California, New York and Ohio.

The lack of attention to the state is one reason Rep. Vicky Riback Wilson, D-Columbia, opposes the primary. She voted against the 1998 bill to make Missouri a primary state.

Wilson said she favors a caucus because citizens who attend those meetings pick candidates, delegates and also discuss platform agendas.

"The issues are just as important as choosing a nominee," Wilson said. "I like the caucus system because it's not just a beauty contest."

Wilson said she will wait to hear from her constituents as to whether or not a primary allows more access to the political system.

"I guess I'm just reserving judgment," she said.

One of Columbia's other legislators, Rep. Tim Harlan, is also taking a wait-and-see approach.

"I think its too early to say we need to change it," he said. "We need to give it a chance."

However, one legislator, Sen. Danny Staples, D-Eminence, already has changed his mind about how Missouri should do politics.

In 1998, Staples voted in favor of Missouri becoming a primary state. However, now he has decided that it would be better off to go back to the caucus system.

"I voted for the primary bill, however I favor the caucus system," he said.

Staples said people who attended the caucus meetings had the authority and power to select a president of their choosing. Yet, the primary system is based on already chosen candidates.

"I don't think Missouri needs a presidential primary," Staples said.

Despite some people's opposition to the primary, more Missourians will participate today than in the caucuses of years past.

Less than 2 percent, or 20,000 to 30,000 of the registered voters, participated in Missouri caucuses. The Secretary of State's office estimates that 30 percent of voters, close to 1,050,000 people, will participate in today's primary.

That number is the same as the first Missouri presidential primary in 1988, when 30 percent of voters showed up at the polls.