Voting in a Primary Election: An Explainer

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Voting in a Primary Election - Democracy Explainer

Voting in a Primary Election

When all voters cast their vote in a primary election, it helps ensure that the candidates in the general election are more representative of the people. 

Primary elections are when voters decide a party’s candidate for the upcoming general election. While voters have the freedom to vote across party lines in general elections, the rules can be, and often are, different for primary elections

Why are primary elections important?

Primary elections can provide voters with a wide range of candidates from which to choose. By offering a diverse pool of candidates, primary elections ensure that the chosen party’s candidate represents the various interests within the party.

Fostering healthy debates and the exchange of ideas, primary elections can ultimately create a more knowledgeable electorate. As voters evaluate candidate qualifications, track records, and policy positions, they become more informed and the eventual winning candidate is more vetted.

Primary elections can also help establish party unity by narrowing down the field of candidates to one individual who will represent the party in the general election. In theory, this ensures that the chosen candidate embodies the collective vision and values of the party, resulting in a cohesive message and a stronger chance of success in the overall electoral race. Generally, there will only be one candidate per party.

How are primary elections held?

How primary elections run, meaning who can vote in the primary election is determined by the state and the political parties. The two main types of primary elections are open and closed, but there are several other variations:

  • Open Primary: Voters do not need to affiliate with a party in order to vote, and they can choose in which primary to participate. In other words, the primary election is open to any eligible voter, not just those registered to that specific party.
  • Closed Primary: Voters must be registered with a party prior to voting in that party’s primary election. Independent and unaffiliated voters are not allowed to participate in the party’s primary. In other words, the primary election is closed to those not registered to that particular party. Thus, if one of your preferred candidates belongs to a political party that is not with your affiliated party, then you won’t be able to cast a ballot for that candidate in the primary.
  • Semi-Closed/Partially Closed Primary: Voters registered with that specific party are allowed to vote in that party’s primary election. Each primary election, parties are able to decide whether to allow independent and unaffiliated voters to vote in their partisan primary. If one of your preferred candidates belongs to a political party that is not with your affiliated party, then you may not be able to cast a ballot for that candidate in the primary.
  • Semi-Open/Partially Open Primary: Voters, regardless of affiliation, are allowed to choose in which party’s primary they want to vote. The voter, however, must either change their party affiliation or publicly declare their ballot choice as different from their registered party.
  • Open to Unaffiliated Primary: Voters who are unaffiliated or independent are able to choose in which party’s primary they want to vote, while voters already registered with a party are only allowed to vote in their party’s primary.
  • Top Two Primary: All voters vote on the same ballot that lists all candidates. The top two candidates, regardless of party, move on to the general election.

Still, there are a couple of states that hold uniquely distinct primary elections and are a version of one or more of these variations.

What’s the difference between a primary election and a caucus?

A primary election and a caucus are two different methods used in the United States to select possible candidates for political office. While both serve the purpose of choosing a party’s candidate for a general election, they differ in process and participation. 

In a primary election, registered voters cast secret ballots at designated polling stations. This process is overseen by election officials, ensuring fairness and transparency. Voters have the freedom to choose their preferred candidate without any open discussions or debates. The primary election is a more conventional approach, resembling the general election process, and often allows for a wide range of voters to participate. 

On the other hand, a caucus is a more open, collaborative and interactive process. Registered party members gather at designated locations, typically in schools, community centers, or private homes. Instead of casting a ballot, participants engage in open discussions, speeches, and debates about the candidates. They have the opportunity to persuade others to support their preferred candidate and form groups or factions based on their choices. At the end of the caucus, the number of supporters each candidate has determines the final results. 

Caucuses require a higher level of involvement from participants than primary elections. Participants need to be present at specific locations and actively participate in the discussions, making it a more engaging and community-oriented event. While caucuses can foster political awareness, encourage grassroots organizing, and build a sense of community among party members, they also require time, commitment, and active engagement in the political process.

Primary elections provide a more convenient and accessible voting method, while caucuses offer a platform for voters to engage in direct conversations about the candidates. In recent years, there has been a shift towards primary elections in many states, as they are seen as more inclusive and democratic. However, some states still prefer the caucus system, believing it allows for more in-depth discussions and consideration of candidates.

What is the history of primary elections?

Primary elections have a rich history that dates back to the early 20th century. Before the introduction of primaries, political parties relied heavily on caucuses to select their nominees. This process, however, was often controlled by party insiders and did not provide much opportunity for ordinary voters to have a say in the selection of candidates. 

Over time, there was a growing demand for more inclusive and democratic methods of candidate selection. Caucuses gradually transitioned into primaries, where registered party members could directly participate in the nomination process. This shift gave voters a greater role and voice in determining the party’s candidate for general elections. 

Today, primary elections are an integral part of the democratic process, allowing citizens to actively participate in shaping the political landscape and exercising their right to choose their preferred candidates. As responsible citizens, it is crucial that we actively participate in the primaries not only to exercise our right to vote, especially since the privilege has not always been accessible, but to influence which candidates will be on the ballot in the general election.

What is the difference between a presidential primary election and a state primary election?

In a state primary election, votes are tallied to directly determine which candidate wins to represent the party. It’s a direct election to determine which candidate will be on the ballot for the general election. State primaries determine which federal, state, and local candidates will be on the general election ballot.

A presidential primary, or presidential preference primary, is typically an indirect election meaning the votes tallied are not directly for the candidate running for president. Rather, the votes are tallied and the state parties award delegates according to these votes and the party’s allocation rules. These delegates then vote for their candidate at their party’s national convention. The presidential candidate who wins the most delegate votes at their party’s national convention will be on the ballot for the general election. 

States may use different rules, dates, and primary types for presidential primary elections and state primary elections. A state may run state primary elections as open primaries, but then hold semi-closed primaries for presidential elections. Any mixture of possible primary types for state and presidential primaries may exist as it is informed both by the state and the parties.

What is the primary schedule?

During a presidential election year, presidential primary elections tend to get a lot of attention as they determine the presidential candidates who will be on the ballot in November. In presidential election years, most split their presidential primary and their state primary.  

The chaos and violence of the 1968 election resulted in several reforms to the primary election process, including the requirement that presidential nominees needed to be solidified by June. Therefore, presidential primary elections start at the beginning of the year and are held into early summer. State primaries, on the other hand, may be held as late as August or early September.

Why don’t all states hold their presidential primaries on the same day?

Elections are largely determined by individual states, including the timing of their elections. The order in which states host their primaries/caucuses is a contentious point, especially during the last few years.

One reason for staggered primaries is that it allows presidential candidates to travel to multiple states between primary elections. Candidates for other federal, state, or local positions only need to travel within one state or a smaller district; however, presidential candidates want to have time to campaign in all, or most states.  

For more than 100 years, New Hampshire has held the first primary of the election season as it is actually written into the state’s law that they must go first. As part of the post-1968 reforms, Iowa changed its rules establishing a time-consuming selection process that forced leaders to start the process earlier. As a result, Iowa was given the first caucus slot in 1972.

Because candidate performance in Iowa and New Hampshire can determine whether a candidate stays in the race, these two states are viewed as having an outsized influence on deciding the final candidate. This issue has been raised more in recent years as the country’s population becomes more diverse and New Hampshire and Iowa’s unrepresentative populations play a major role in determining the future candidates on the ballot.

Some voters think that the first primary or caucus should be rotated between states, or should at least be held by different states than New Hampshire and Iowa. On the flip side, some voters argue the first primary slots matter less than they used to as candidates are now spending much more time focused on digital campaigns than in-person ones. 

As for the order of the rest of the states, the states themselves generally get to determine when they want to hold their primaries/caucuses, but not without influence from the two major parties’ national committees. 

What is Super Tuesday?

Super Tuesday refers to a single day when the most states and territories hold their presidential primary elections. While Super Tuesday does not mark the first caucus or primary, it is early in the season – usually February or March. The sheer number of states holding elections on that day can often influence which candidates move forward and which drop out. 

That is a major reason why states join together to vote on the same day – so that their state’s voters will have a chance to vote when there are still plenty of options, before most of the candidates drop out of the race.

When is my primary election?

To find out when your state’s presidential and state primaries are being held, check our Election Center. Make sure you are ready to vote in your state’s primary by checking your registration or registering to vote now!