JEFFERSON CITY — Though Republican Rick Santorum claimed momentum from the results, just 8 percent of Missouri's registered voters cast ballots in its presidential primary — setting a new low for state electoral participation.
The low voter turnout came at a high price — an estimated $7 million for the election, or more than $21 for each vote cast, at a time when Missouri is slicing funding for public universities and reducing its workforce in a struggle to balance its budget.
In retrospect, "it was a waste of money," Missouri House Budget Committee Chairman Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City, said Friday.
Silvey was one of several million Missouri voters who skipped the primary. Like others, Silvey cited the fact that the Republican vote didn't count toward awarding delegates to the Republican National Convention. Missouri's GOP delegates will instead be allotted under a caucus system that begins March 17.
Santorum won about 55 percent of the 251,868 votes cast in Missouri's nonbinding Republican primary, more than doubling those for Mitt Romney and giving him a sweep of Tuesday's contests in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado. Missouri's Democratic primary did count for delegates, but President Barack Obama faced no serious opposition and just 72,923 people cast Democratic ballots.
Missouri does not require voters to register by parties, meaning anyone can participate in either party's primary.
"Missouri voters heard for weeks that their vote in the Republican primary wasn't going to count, and that obviously had a negative effect on turnout. It is unfortunate that a lot of political wrangling discouraged people from voting," said Ryan Hobart, a spokesman for Democratic Secretary of State Robin Carnahan.
Under state law, Missouri's primary must occur Feb. 7. But when the National Republican Party warned states they could lose half their delegates for holding primaries that early, Missouri's Republican-led General Assembly passed a bill to reschedule the primary for March 6. Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed the bill, citing objections to unrelated sections.
Nixon then added the presidential primary to the agenda for an autumn special session. But some Republican senators insisted Missouri should thumb its nose at the national party directive, and lawmakers failed to pass a bill delaying the primary. To avoid getting penalized by the national party, Missouri's Republican Party opted to use a spring caucus system — instead of the February primary — to choose its delegates.
Election officials had projected a 23 percent turnout for the primary. That threshold was exceeded in only one of Missouri's 114 counties. Southeast Missouri's New Madrid County was the lowest of the low — with just 3 percent voter turnout.
"The lack of attention paid to the nonbinding primary led to lower-than-usual turnout, but this should not be mistaken for voter apathy," said Lloyd Smith, the executive director of the Missouri Republican Party. "The truth is, all across our state, we are seeing huge numbers of Republicans who energized and motivated to make Barack Obama a one-term president."