Open vs. Closed Primary Elections in the U.S.

One of the benefits of living in a democracy is that you have a say in who holds political office. Registered voters can vote in primary elections to determine a party's candidates. They also have the right to vote in the presidential election.

There are different types of primary elections. Here, we'll discuss the two major types — open primaries and closed primary elections. We'll explain who gets to participate in each type. We will also briefly discuss how you can determine which type of primary election your jurisdiction holds.

Primary Elections vs. General Elections

Partisan primary elections (primaries) occur within a political party before general elections. The purpose of a primary election is to narrow the field of candidates within a political party. Voters accomplish this goal by electing a single candidate to represent their party.

Once each party elects an individual to represent them, the candidates move on to compete in the general election. The person who wins the general election will hold whichever political office the election was for. For example, the winners of a presidential primary will compete in the presidential election. The person who wins the presidential election will become president.

Open vs. Closed Primary Elections

Very few elections in the United States involve nonpartisan candidates. Primary ballots only include individuals running within the party. Likewise, the nominees in a general election usually include Democrats, Republicans, and independent candidates. The question is whether you can vote in a state primary election.

Whether you can participate in a primary election largely depends on where you live. Some states have open primaries, and others have closed primary elections. The tricky thing is that this can change from year to year. For example, the number of states with closed primaries varies yearly. It depends on which type of primary the parties and state legislatures want to hold.

Open Primaries

Open primaries are open to all voters, regardless of their political party affiliation. They give voters freedom when casting their vote. This is because registered voters can privately vote in either party's primary.

Voters in areas with open primaries can vote for a candidate in their party. They can also vote on the other party's ballot. Open primary systems allow independent voters to participate in primary elections without registering with a particular party.

Closed Primaries

Unlike open primaries, voters in states with closed primaries must register with a political party before voting in the party's primary.

Once voters register with a particular party, they can only participate in that party's primary election. For example, Republicans can only vote in the Republican primaries, and Democrats can only vote in the Democratic primaries.

An essential feature of the closed primary system is that it forces voters to affiliate with a political party before they can vote in a primary election. Independent and unaffiliated voters are not able to vote in closed primaries.

Why Do Some States Use Closed Primaries?

If open primaries give voters more freedom, why would a state hold a closed primary? Proponents of closed primaries say that this type of election prevents vote raiding.

Vote raiding occurs when people affiliated with one party vote in the other party's primary election. They purposely vote for the weaker candidate, hoping this weaker candidate wins the primary. This way, it's easier for the other candidate to win the general election.

Semi-Open vs. Semi-Closed Primaries

Some states hold primaries that are neither strictly open nor closed. These elections include semi-open and semi-closed primaries.

In a semi-open primary, voters fill out party-specific ballots but don't have to affiliate with either party. If an independent voter wants to vote for a Democrat in the primary election, they can do so.

Likewise, if they want to vote for a Republican in the primary election, they cast a Republican ballot.

In semi-closed primaries, voters must still affiliate with a party before they can vote. However, they don't have to officially affiliate with a party until election day.

Voters can change their party affiliation on election day. However, many states, like New Hampshire and Colorado, still require voters to officially affiliate with a party before casting their ballot.

Some states allow the parties to choose the type of primary it will hold. In Alaska, for example, the Republican Party has semi-closed primaries while other parties hold open primaries.

How Do You Know Whether Your State Holds Open or Closed Primaries?

There is no clear-cut line between states with closed primaries and states with an open primary system. It can change from year to year. It can also vary between parties. For example, the Republican party may hold open primaries in a state where the Democratic party has closed primaries.

While the type of primary elections in a particular state may change, the below represents a list of states with closed primary systems:

  • Alabama
  • California
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Florida
  • Kentucky
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Nevada
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • Oklahoma
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • South Dakota

At least one of the parties in the following states use open primaries for local and state elections:

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

The above lists may be confusing. For example, Alabama appears on the open and closed primary system lists. This is because, in these states, the Democratic and Republican parties may use different voting systems. The best thing to do is to call the Board of Elections office in your jurisdiction and ask which type of primary your party is having this year.

There are a handful of states that use semi-closed primaries. These include:

  • North Carolina
  • Utah
  • West Virginia

In semi-closed primaries, registered voters with a party affiliation must vote with their party. However, individuals without a party affiliation can vote for whomever they choose.

Legal Support for Voters

Because so many states conduct their primary elections differently, you should research your state's primary election procedures before heading to the polls.

If you suspect someone has violated your right to participate in any election, contact an experienced attorney near you.

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