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Democracy takes the stage as Missouri candidates file for office

Hundreds of Missouri candidates flocked to Jefferson City Tuesday to take part in the longstanding ritual of standing in line — in some cases for hours — to participate in the first day of candidate-filing for the August and November ballots.

All the major candidates for U.S. Senate and governor filed, along with contenders for other statewide offices, Congress and the General Assembly. And to many, the first-day symbolism counts as much as the substance.

“You look at the wide cross section of humanity here looking to serve the public,’’ said St. Louis County Assessor Jake Zimmerman, a Democrat who filed for state attorney general.

U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner was among the first to file for office on Tuesday, the first day of candidate filing. She was pleased to draw a low number in the lottery to determine her place on the ballot. 2016
Credit Jo Mannies | St. Louis Public Radio
U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner was among the first to file for office on Tuesday, the first day of candidate filing. She was pleased to draw a low number in the lottery to determine her place on the ballot.

“Some people are going to win. Maybe more who aren’t. But everyone’s here because they care about democracy.”

U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, was among the early birds near the beginning of the line, which for a time snaked through the halls of the Missouri secretary of state’s building, about two blocks from the Missouri Capitol.

“This is real democracy,’’ Wagner said. “Everybody lines up to pay their $100 filing fee and exercises their constitutional right to run for office.”

Unlike the partisanship that often fills the Capitol, the first-day filing line took on a party atmosphere, as candidates from both major parties engaged in friendly banter as they passed the time.

Candidates covet top ballot position

Candidate filing goes on for month. So why the traditional first-day crush?

First-day filing offers the only chance to be listed first on the ballot for a particular office, which some candidates and political pundits believe can be worth a few extra votes.

In Missouri, all the first-day filers participate in a lottery that determines their order on the ballot for their particular office. During the remainder of the filing period, candidates are listed in the order that they filed.

U.S. Rep. Billy Long, R-Springfield, quipped that the first-day line “gets longer every time.”

But it used to be worse. Until 22 years ago, the quest to be first on Missouri’s statewide ballot generated another ritual, in which candidates would hire surrogates to spend weeks or months in line.

“The system has definitely improved from the time we camped out in sleeping bags in the Capitol,’’ said former U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, who on Tuesday filed for lieutenant governor.

Blunt crafted current setup

The architect of the current first-day filing system was then-Secretary of State Roy Blunt, a Republican who’s now in the U.S. Senate.

Blunt had complained for years about the old system, which the General Assembly finally changed in time for the 1994 election.

Veteran staffers in the secretary of state’s office still talk about how the camped-out crowd of surrogates could be disruptive, at times even harassing Capitol employees — especially women — as they walked by.

The turning point was arguably in late 1991, when Blunt unsuccessfully sought to prevent an early line from forming for filing for the 1992 ballot. Then-state Sen. Jay Nixon showed up around Thanksgiving to stand in line to file as a Democrat for attorney general. He refused to comply with Blunt’s order to leave, saying state law didn’t prevent the early line.

Blunt finally acquiesced and briefly stood in line himself, to secure his first-on-the-ballot place in what became the crowded 1992 GOP contest for governor. (Blunt’s campaign quickly brought in a line surrogate so the candidate could get back to work shortly after his confrontation with Nixon.)

This opening day, Blunt was standing in line like everyone else to file for his bid to win re-election to the U.S. Senate. “It worked so much better when I was in charge,’’ he said, referring to the long wait.

Blunt chuckled as he recalled the old days.

“People showed up with their folding chairs, their sleeping bags and their coolers. We stopped that. We were able to figure out another way to do it.”

His Democratic rival, Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, also filed for the U.S. Senate during the first-day festivities. Kander waited until shortly after noon, when the line got a little shorter.

First-day filing so far has gone smoothly, Kander said. "It's always such an exciting day because the energy is so positive and bipartisan."

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.