Election reform heard in Senate committee
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Election reform heard in Senate committee

Date: March 31, 2008
By: Matt Tilden
State Capitol Bureau
Links: HB 1310, HB 1763, SB 1231

JEFFERSON CITY - With primary season in full swing, some Missouri senators are looking to complete major overhauls that could change election procedure in the state. The Senate Financial Committee heard a package of election-reform bills Monday afternoon:

Ballot initiatives

Rep. Mike Parson, R-Bolivar, testified in favor of legislation that has already passed through the House prohibiting out-of-state petition circulators, as well as circulating multiple petitions at one time. Circulators of any petition seeking to become a ballot initiative would have to register with the secretary of state and pledge to comply with the state's conditions. Parson said his bill stems from his belief that those trying to influence the state's laws should be from Missouri.

Robin Acree, a representative from Grass Roots Organizing and Fix Our Healthcare -- groups that circulate petitions in Columbia -- said she thinks the petition process should be citizen-driven, and that current constraints on petitioning already make it difficult on grassroots organizers. GRO works to gather signatures in order to restore health care cuts Gov. Matt Blunt made in 2005, Acree said.

Acree said GRO has not taken a position on Parson's bill, but that most of the volunteer organization is local.

Acree cited the use of superdelegates and well-financed initiatives such as activist Ward Connerly's anti-affirmative action petition as evidence that hardships are being placed on populist forms of democracy.

"People are getting shut out of the process on every level," Acree said.

The bill was endorsed by a number of interest groups within the state, including the National Rifle Association, Missouri Commerce and Industries, Missouri Restaurant Association and other retail and business groups.

Instant Runoff Voting

Another bill that came before the committee has been filed in the Senate by Sen. John Loudon, R-St. Louis County, and would allow voters to rank candidates by preference in general, primary and special elections. Candidates receiving the least amount of votes in the election would be eliminated one by one, with their votes redistributed, until the race was down to two candidates, one of whom would have to receive a plurality of the votes. 

Because of Loudon's absence, the bill was presented to the committee by Sen. Jeff Smith, D-St. Louis. It would allow Missouri elections to function similarly to caucuses that have been held so far this primary season in other states.

Smith said this process is favored by advocates and special interest groups seeking to ensure an election outcome favorable to the majority of citizens.

Detractors in the committee ridiculed the idea because of its complicated nature.

"Can we only vote no on this once?" asked Sen. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington. "And if the Russian and Czech judges don't like you, can we throw their votes out?"

Independent Voting Procedures

The committee also looked at a bill imposing the same filing requirements on independent candidates as Democratic and Republican candidates. Proposed by Rep. Ted Hoskins, D-St. Louis County, the bill has already passed through the House.

There seemed to be a bipartisan consensus on the Senate committee that independent candidates can cherry-pick which candidates they want to challenge.

Sen. Harry Kennedy, D-St. Louis, said the intent of the bill is to combat the "shenanigans of somebody trying to skirt the system."

Staunch opposition rose from the testimony of Barbara Woodruff, a spokeswoman for the grassroots organization Show Me Independents, who accused Hoskins' bill of being "undemocratic," "unfair," and "unconstitutional."

Woodruff said that there is a growing independent movement on the state and federal levels and that the bill is trying to protect the two-party system.

"This sort of political maneuvering does nothing but frustrate the average citizen and cause even greater distrust of politics and politicians," Woodruff said.

Woodruff also promised that if the bill passed, the legality of it would be challenged in court by an independent candidate.