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Commentary on Primary: Missouri's expensive pointless 'beauty pageant'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 20, 2012 - With the repeated failure of any non-Mitt to win the hearts and minds of Republicans, it looks as though Romney will be the standard-bearer for the GOP. in the general election. All eyes are on now the South Carolina primary, which looks to be the last chance for Paul, Santorum or Gingrich to make their case to Republicans.

There will be other primaries, of course, including Florida, which is holding its primary on Jan. 31 in violation of Republican National Committee rules. These primaries might not change the outcome, but they still have an important role to play.

In some primaries, those who don't finish first can still pick up delegates, and this means bargaining power at the Republican National Convention to get a coveted prime time speaking slot or to force changes in the party platform. And even those states where the winner gets all the delegates still have a role in ratifying the GOP's selection, adding to his margin of victory.

Then there are the expensive, and pointless, primaries that make no difference whatsoever to the nomination process. Such is Missouri's Republican "Presidential Preference" primary, to be held on Feb. 7. Don't blame yourself if it isn't marked on your calendar.

As the name suggests, the primary simply records the "preferences" of the voters who show up; no delegates will be awarded based on the results of the poll. The secretary of the state has to (according to her website) "notify the state chair of each of the established political parties for whom a candidate was listed" of the election results. That's it.

It's a glorified public opinion poll, or as Newt Gingrich put it (when he decided not to pay the $1,000 fee to have his name listed in the primary) a "beauty pageant." The real action will be in March, when the Missouri GOP holds caucuses: The winner of those gets the delegates. The winner of the Feb. 7 primary maybe gets a beneath-the-fold news story at best, and Missouri taxpayers get stuck with the bill: between $4 million and $7 million according to estimates.

The reason we're in this mess is a conflict between Missouri law, which requires the state to hold a primary on Feb. 7, and the rules of the Republican National Committee, which limits which states can have primaries before March. Missouri isn't one of them. An attempt to repeal the mandatory Feb. 7 primary failed last year in the legislature.

Secretary of State Robin Carnahan has defended having the primary in over-the-top terms. Against the complaint that the non-binding primary costs too much money, she replied: "Anyone arguing an election isn't worth the cost, need only turn on the news to see the price those who have been oppressed, voiceless and powerless for too long are willing to pay for the right to vote."

This is too much. Missourians will have a chance to have their voice heard via the caucus process and also in the general election this fall. What is at stake isn't the right the vote, it's the right to register a preference. And while there are serious debates to be had about the merits of having a primary versus having a caucus, and pressing questions about the order of the presidential primaries themselves, all of these are besides the point when it comes to the preference poll. This should be the last election cycle Missouri bothers with it.

Chad Flanders teaches at Saint Louis University School of Law. 

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