What Is a Blanket Primary?
Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors | Last reviewed March 16, 2020
A blanket primary allows voters to choose one candidate for each office, no matter which party the candidate is affiliated with. Under this system of primary, the leading primary vote-getters from each party are allowed to advance to the general election.
This differs from a traditional primary, in which voters can vote only for the candidate of one political party. Blanket primaries are also a bit different from open primaries. In an open primary, voters may pick candidates regardless of their own party registration. But they are allowed to choose only among candidates from a single party he or she has decided on.
Similar to Non-Partisan Blanket Primaries
A blanket primary is related to a non-partisan blanket primary, sometimes called a top-two primary. In a non-partisan blanket primary, the leading two vote-getters advance to the general election, regardless of their party affiliation.
That makes it possible that two candidates from the same party could be matched against each other in the general election. That couldn't happen in a traditional blanket primary.
Blanket Primaries: Becoming Rare
Washington was one of the first states to use a blanket primary, replacing closed primaries with that system in 1935. (A closed primary requires a voter to declare a party affiliation before voting.)
Over the years, blanket primaries, and even non-partisan blanket primaries, have become rare. Currently, the non-partisan blanket primary is used in four states:
- Nebraska (legislative races only)
In Louisiana, this type of primary is known as a "jungle" primary.
Blanket Primaries Offer Voters More Independence
Part of the appeal of a blanket primary for voters is that it allows them to act independently at the ballot box. This way, they are not being forced to vote for one party or to even declare an affiliation with one party.
If a voter wishes to vote for a Democratic candidate for Senate but a Republican candidate for governor, they may do so. Among primary election systems, the blanket primary is considered the one that offers voters the most choice and flexibility and offers third parties a more level playing field.
But They Are Not Popular Among Big Parties
For that very reason, blanket primaries are not popular among the major U.S. political parties, which prize party loyalty and straight-ticket voting.
According to detractors, blanket primaries also open up the potential for "tactical" voting, in which a voter might deliberately cast a ballot for the weakest candidate of the party they oppose.
A study by the Southern Political Science Association determined that the blanket primary tends to lead to the elections of more moderate candidates. For that reason, incumbent candidates tend to take more moderate positions in their campaigning.
Legal Battles Involving Blanket Primaries
Other states used to employ a traditional blanket primary. In 1996, voters in California approved a ballot initiative that would create a blanket primary system for congressional and state-level primaries.
But the state's Democratic and Republican parties, along with several third parties, sued in federal court to overturn that ballot measure. Their argument was that the blanket primary system infringed on the rights of the various political parties by letting unaffiliated voters have a say in their party's nomination process.
In June 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of those political parties, striking down California's blanket primary law as unconstitutional. The court's reasoning was that blanket primaries tended to mar the integrity of the party nominating processes, thus violating those parties' constitutionally protected right to freedom of association. Later, court decisions used similar logic to strike down blanket primary systems in Washington and Alaska.
Years later, Washington passed an initiative to restore the non-partisan blanket primary. Despite ongoing legal struggles, it remains in place. New York Sen. Charles Schumer has advocated for a nationwide blanket primary, indicating that this form of primary election might not be dead yet.
Voters are starting to demand more flexibility and freedom in how they may cast their ballots. As alternatives to traditional Republican and Democratic candidates gain more viability, the blanket primary will regain some traction.