What Are the Different Types of Primary Elections?

Many aspects of American democracy are unique, but few are more unique that our political elections — especially primary elections. Whereas many nations have a single election process, each U.S. state has its own election system, in addition to the nationwide federal elections.

Primary elections, also known simply as "primaries," are how political parties determine which of their candidates will represent each respective party in the general election. Primaries are one of the most essential processes in American politics, so it is worth discussing the different types.

Types of Primaries

It is important to note that primaries happen in presidential, state, and local elections. Additionally, one state could have a different type of primary for every level of elections. Some states even allow each party to decide what kind of primary the parties will hold.

Even though there are many types of primaries, sometimes the differences between them are not immediately obvious. The most common types of American primaries are:

  • Open and semi-open
  • Closed and semi-closed
  • Blanket and top-two

When the time comes for a primary, voters generally go to their local polling place and cast their ballot for whichever candidates they choose to support. However, how voters can cast their ballots depends mainly on the type of primary being held.

Open and Semi-Open Primaries

Within every state in the U.S., there are multiple political parties. Some are larger and more well known than others, but voters can choose which party they want to support. An open primary is one in which any voter can cast their ballot for any party, even if the voter is not officially affiliated with that party.

For example, let's say a voter does not consider themselves to be a Democrat. But they would like to help choose the Democratic nominee. The states with open primaries allow the voter to vote in the Democratic primary without officially affiliating with the Democratic Party. The open primary system gives voters the highest amount of freedom when it comes to casting their ballot.

Some states that use open primaries for presidential elections include:

  • Alabama
  • Illinois
  • Minnesota
  • Texas
  • Vermont

While the open primary system does give voters the greatest amount of voting freedom, some people believe open primaries create opportunities for a practice known as "raiding." This is when members of rival political parties cross party lines and cast their ballot for the opposition candidate. They believe their own party will have a better chance of defeating this candidate in a general election.

In practice, however, most voters would rather vote for their own candidate than risk casting their vote for a supposedly weaker opposition candidate.

In addition to open primaries, some states conduct semi-open primaries. In a semi-open primary, voters can still help choose a candidate for any party they want and do not have to officially affiliate with a particular party. But, voters do have to cast a party-specific ballot when they vote.

Closed and Semi-Closed Primaries

Unlike open primaries, closed primaries require voters to officially register with a specific party before Election Day. This means that voters cannot cast their ballots until they have affiliated with a party.

For example, if you want to vote for a Republican, you need to affiliate with the Republican party; if you want to vote for a Democrat, you need to affiliate with the Democratic party, etc.

Some states that used closed primaries in presidential elections include:

  • Alaska
  • Colorado
  • Delaware
  • Hawaii
  • Wyoming

Some people argue that political parties, because of their rights of association, cannot be prevented from closing their primaries. But many opponents of closed primaries believe that closed primaries:

  • Often limit voters' options
  • Can prevent smaller political parties from getting on the ballot
  • Can act as a form of voter suppression

Some states also conduct what are known as semi-closed primaries. In a semi-closed primary, unaffiliated voters can vote with whichever party they prefer. However, voters must affiliate with a party before they can cast their ballot.

Semi-Open vs. Semi-Closed Primaries

In a semi-closed primary, voters do have to affiliate with a party before they can cast their ballot. In a semi-open primary, voters vote on a party-specific ballot without officially affiliating. The only real difference between a semi-closed primary and a semi-open primary.

Fortunately, semi-closed primaries generally allow voters to register on Election Day.

Blanket vs. Top-Two Primary

U.S. states are sometimes considered the laboratories of democracy, meaning the states have greater freedom than the federal government to explore different systems and styles of policies.

States have experimented with different forms of elections since the founding of the nation. A handful of states have experimented with a type of primary known as a blanket primary.

In a blanket primary, all candidates:

  • Run against each other at the same time
  • Appear on the same ballot

Voters then choose one candidate for each office, regardless of the candidate's political affiliation. Whichever candidate for each office gets the most votes gets the position.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled blanket primaries are an unconstitutional violation of political parties' First Amendment rights of association. However, some states have modified their blanket elections into what is known as a top-two primary.

In a top-two primary, the two candidates who receive a plurality of votes move on to the general election. Perhaps the most important feature of the top-two primary is that candidates are not separated by a political party on the ballot. So, it is possible that the two candidates from the same political party to move on to the general election.

Some states that hold top-two primaries include:

  • California
  • Nebraska
  • Washington

Plurality vs. Majority vs. Supermajority

Democratic voting systems generally rely on various forms of majorities to elect public officials. Just as different states have different types of primaries, those different primaries rely on different kinds of majorities to determine their elections' winners.

One of the most common forms of majority is the simple majority. In practical terms, a simple majority is anything more than half of the total number of votes. In some primaries, any candidate who receives a simple majority automatically wins the election, therefore eliminating the entire run-off election. However, it is more common for no candidate to receive a simple majority.

If no candidate receives a simple majority, the candidate with the most votes will have received a plurality of votes. Also known as a relative majority, a plurality is:

  • Less than a simple majority but still a higher percentage of the total votes than other candidates
  • Example: Candidate A received 45% of the total number of votes while Candidate B received 35%

Some primaries require that candidates receive more than a simple majority of votes to win the election. This is known as a supermajority. One of the most common forms of supermajority is the two-thirds majority. For example, the U.S. Constitution can only be amended if the amendment receives a supermajority in Congress.

Additional Resources for Voters

Voting and citizen participation are critical to a functioning democracy, but navigating each state's primary elections can be challenging. Fortunately, many resources exist to clarify questions regarding each state's election procedures.

If you have questions about your state's primary election process, you can look at your state's voting laws and your state government's website. If you think your voting rights have been unjustly limited, you may want to consider seeking out advice and assistance from an experienced legal professional.

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