What Are the Different Types of Primary Elections?

Primaries are one of the most essential processes in American politics. Regardless of your party affiliation, it's essential that you understand this process. Here, we'll discuss the different types of primary elections.

America's election process is unique. Many countries have a single election process. In the U.S., the various states have their own election systems. This includes primary elections. Primaries are how political parties determine which candidates will represent them in the general election.

Types of Primaries

No matter what some politicians say, there are very few nonpartisan issues. Democrats, Republicans, and independent candidates have different views on these issues. To promote their political platforms, candidates seek to secure state and federal political positions. One way this happens is through primary elections.

Party primaries happen in presidential, statewide, and local elections. Some states use different types of primary for every level of elections. Some even allow each party to decide what kind of primary the parties will hold.

The most common types of American primaries are:

During a primary, registered voters go to their local polling place and cast their ballot for their favorite candidate. However, how they do this depends on the type of primary they're voting in.

Difference Between Primary and General Election Ballot

The main difference between primary elections and general elections is that primaries determine which candidate will represent a political party in the general elections. For example, during the Iowa state primaries, electors choose the candidate to represent the Democratic and Republican parties in the presidential election.

General elections determine who will hold an office for a fixed period. For example, there are presidential primaries every four years. Whoever wins the presidential primary will run in the presidential election in November.

You do not have to vote in a primary election to participate in a general election. You may choose to vote only in major elections. That does not mean you cannot participate in a primary election later.

You Must Register to Vote To Participate in Primary Elections

Only registered voters can take part in primary elections. You don't have to complete voter registration with a party affiliation. You can register as an independent. Depending on the primary type, people registered as independents can participate.

Open and Semi-Open Primaries

An open primary is one in which voters can vote for any party. Their party affiliation doesn't matter. For example, in an open primary, a Republican can vote to choose the Democratic nominee. States with open primaries allow voters to vote in the Democratic primary without officially affiliating with the Democratic Party. The open primary system gives voters freedom when casting their ballot.

There are 20 states with open primaries for at least one party. These include:

  • Alabama
  • Arkansas
  • Georgia
  • Hawaii
  • Florida
  • Indiana
  • Iowa
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • Montana
  • North Dakota
  • Ohio
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Vermont
  • Virginia
  • Wisconsin

Some people think 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 opposing candidate. They hope their party representative 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 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. However, they must cast a party-specific ballot when they vote.

Closed and Semi-Closed Primaries

Unlike open primaries, closed primaries require voters to register with a specific party before election day. Voters cannot cast their ballots until they have affiliated with a party.

For example, if you want to vote for a Republican, you must affiliate with the Republican party. To vote for a Democrat, you must register with the Democratic party.

States that use closed primaries in presidential elections include:

  • Alaska
  • Connecticut
  • Colorado
  • Delaware
  • Kentucky
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Nevada
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • Oklahoma
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • South Dakota
  • Utah
  • Wyoming
  • Washington D.C.

Some argue that the government should allow political parties to hold closed primaries. Others claim that closed primaries are unfair for the following reasons:

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

Some states conduct semi-closed primaries. Unaffiliated voters can vote with whichever party they prefer in a semi-closed primary. However, voters must affiliate with a party before casting their ballot.

Semi-Open vs. Semi-Closed Primaries

In a semi-closed primary, voters must affiliate with a party before casting their ballot. In a semi-open primary, voters vote on a party-specific ballot without officially affiliating. This is the only real difference between semi-closed and 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. States have more freedom than the federal government to explore different political systems and policies.

Some states experiment with blanket primaries.

In a blanket primary, all candidates:

  • Run against one another at the same time
  • Appear on the same ballot

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

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that blanket primaries are unconstitutional. However, states have changed their blanket elections and created top-two primaries.

In a top-two primary, the top two vote-getters compete in the general election. These state governments don't separate candidates by political party. It's possible for two candidates from the same political party to compete in the general election.

States that hold top-two primaries include:

  • California
  • Nebraska
  • Washington

Top-two primaries are rare. Your jurisdiction likely holds regular, party-dependent primaries.

Plurality, Majority, and Supermajority

Democratic voting systems rely on various forms of majorities to elect public officials. Different types of primaries rely on different kinds of majorities to determine their elections' winners.

One of the most common forms of majority is the simple majority. A simple majority requires a candidate to receive more than half the total votes. In some primaries, any candidate who receives a simple majority automatically wins the election. This eliminates the need for a run-off election.

The candidate with the most votes will win if nobody receives a simple majority. This means they receive a plurality of votes.

Plurality is when someone receives less than a simple majority but a higher percentage of the total number of votes. For example, if Candidate A receives 45% of the votes and Candidate B receives 35%, Candidate A will win.

Some primaries require that candidates receive more than a simple majority of votes to win the election. This is 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.

A Lawyer Can Help

Understanding the different types of primaries can be challenging. Consider meeting with a lawyer to help you understand your options and how to protect your voting rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

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