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ANALYSIS: Farming rights vote reveals changes in Missouri

Monday, August 11, 2014 | 6:44 p.m. CDT

JEFERSON CITY — Many Missouri farmers own guns. Yet the right to bear arms is more valued than the right to farm, based on Missouri's recent election results.

Voters this past week approved a constitutional amendment enhancing the state's right to keep and bear arms by 61 percent of the vote. A constitutional amendment creating a right to farm squeaked by with 50.1 percent support.

For both measures, there was a general city-country divide. With a few exceptions, the gun and farm measures fared better in rural areas than in bigger cities.

Yet the reason for the closer margin on the farming amendment wasn't solely because of weaker support for it in suburban St. Louis and Kansas City. Some of the largest percentage drop-offs in "yes" votes between the gun and farming amendments occurred in southern Missouri, particularly the clump of counties surrounding the Springfield-to-Branson corridor, according to an Associated Press analysis of election results.

That voting gap may reveal some important dynamics about Missouri's changing electorate that could influence future campaign strategies for candidates and issue-oriented groups. Although the Springfield-Branson area may have once been rural — and may still be viewed that way by some St. Louis and Kansas City residents — voters in the core of southwest Missouri now are more suburban in their culture.

"We certainly don't consider ourselves rural, especially in Greene County," the home of Springfield, said Dan Ponder, a political science professor at Drury University in Springfield.

"If you ask people what is it that you're known for, what is the primary industry ... it's health, education, some manufacturing and tourism," Ponder said. "So I don't think that there is a perception there that we're agricultural and we need to protect farming."

In agriculture-dependent communities, the support of the Missouri Farm Bureau and groups such as the state pork, corn and soybean associations appeared to hold sway at the ballot box.

But where farming isn't a way of life, voters were more receptive to arguments from opponents of Constitutional Amendment 1 that the measure could shield corporate agriculture from regulations and open the door to greater foreign ownership of Missouri farmland, Ponder said.

By contrast, Constitutional Amendment 5 showed that gun ownership remains a valued right in southwest Missouri, despite a diminished agricultural identity. That's partly because of the region's conservative roots and perhaps also because its population growth has not yet led to the same sort of urban gun violence that perpetuates the daily news in St. Louis and Kansas City, said George Connor, head of the political science department at Missouri State University in Springfield.

In suburban St. Louis County, "because gun violence is closer to them, they see more value in some restrictions on gun ownership," Connor said. "That is definitely not the case here."

In last week's election, nine Missouri counties had a greater than 20 percentage point drop-off in support for the guns and farming rights amendments. The biggest dip occurred in rural Scotland County in northeast Missouri, but all eight of those other counties were in southern Missouri, including the contiguous counties of Greene, Christian, Stone, Taney, Douglas and Ozark.

In Greene County, 62 percent of voters supported the gun-rights amendment but just 37 percent voted for the farming-rights measure. That translated into nearly 9,700 fewer "yes" votes for the farming measure.

The gap was even greater in Christian County (70 percent for guns and 44 percent for farms) and Stone County (77 percent for guns and just under 50 percent for farms), resulting in a combined drop-off of more than 5,100 "yes" votes.

In sheer numbers, the gun-to-farms vote drop-off in eight southern Missouri counties slightly exceeded the combined reduction in the more heavily populated jurisdictions of St. Louis city and county, Kansas City and Jackson County.

Overall, the statewide victory margin for Constitutional Amendment 1 was so small that opponents could legally request a recount to be paid for by the state.

Connor suspects it wouldn't have been so close if the same farming-rights question had been posed as recently as 1990.

"It probably would have passed" in southwest Missouri, he said. "The changing demographics over the last 20-25 years have made us more suburban. Who needs the right to farm?"


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