What Is a Blanket Primary?

A blanket primary allows voters to choose one candidate for each office, no matter the candidate's party affiliation.

The leading vote-getter from each party advances to the general election in a blanket primary. This differs from a traditional primary, in which voters can only vote for the candidate of their political party. Also, in a traditional primary, only one candidate advances to the general election. But, as of June 2023, no state or locality used blanket primaries in its election process.

This article describes blanket primaries. It describes the different types of primaries. Then, it compares and contrasts other primaries with blanket primaries. It then explores the pros and cons of blanket primaries and how some groups advocate for their reinstatement.

Primary Elections: General Information

Primaries are how political parties choose their party's nominees for the presidential election. Technically, the voters choose delegates. The delegates choose the candidates who will compete in the general election.

Every state holds either a primary or caucus. The states decide their primary rules and procedures.

Primaries typically happen from January to June in an election year. The political parties hold their conventions following the primaries and caucuses.

There are several types of primaries, such as:

This section briefly describes the above-listed election methods, except blanket primaries. The rest of the article describes blanket primaries.

Traditional/Closed Primaries

In a traditional primary, also called a closed primary, voters may only vote for a candidate with the same party affiliation as the voter. For example, a voter who registers as a Republican may only vote for a Republican candidate. The registered Republican voter cannot vote in the Democratic primary or for a Democratic candidate.

Ten states use closed primaries, including FloridaNew York, and Pennsylvania.

Partially Closed Primaries

States that use partially closed primaries allow "unaffiliated voters or voters not registered with the party" to take part. Political parties have discretion about allowing one group to take part, such as unaffiliated voters. But they exclude voters registered with another party.

Nine states use partially closed primaries, including Maryland and Oregon.

Partially Open Primaries

A partially open primary allows voters from one party to vote in another party's primary. But, suppose a voter crosses party lines to vote in a partially open primary. In that case, the state may automatically register them as registered voters for the party they supported.

In Iowa, for example, voters must generally note their party affiliation when registering to vote. If they vote for a different party, they must report the change in an eligibility affidavit. The county commissioner in charge of voter registration must note the change in the precinct's registration records.

IllinoisIndianaIowa, and Ohio use partially open primaries.

Open Primaries

States that have open primaries allow any registered voter to cast a ballot. They can vote for any candidate, regardless of the voter's party registration. For example, a registered Democrat can vote for a Republican candidate. A voter cannot vote in more than one primary.

MichiganMontana, and 13 other states use open primaries.

A variation of open primaries allows unaffiliated voters to take part in any primary. But, some states do not allow affiliated voters to vote in a party's primary with which they do not affiliate. This system is "open-to-unaffiliated voters."

Seven states use the open-to-unaffiliated voters method, including Arizona and New Hampshire.

Top-Two/Jungle Primaries

In a top-two primary, the two candidates who get the most votes advance to the general election. So, it does not guarantee that each party advances a candidate to the general election. For example, if two Libertarians get the most votes, they would advance, and no Republicans or Democrats would advance.

Louisiana uses the top-two primary election process. If a candidate gets more than 50% of the votes, they win the election. The top two vote-getters advance if no candidate gets a majority of votes. Louisiana then holds a second election, at which the candidate who gets the most votes wins. These types of second elections are "runoff elections."

Alaska, California, Louisiana, Nebraska, and Washington state all use some variation of the top-two primary. Alaska uses a top-four primary.

Blanket Primaries

A blanket primary differs from traditional and open primaries in two significant ways:

  • A blanket primary lists every candidate on the ballot, regardless of party affiliation.
  • A blanket primary guarantees that a candidate from each party will advance to the general election.

Note that, as of June 2023, no state uses blanket primaries.

A blanket primary does not separate the candidates based on their party affiliations. Instead, every candidate appears on one ballot. For example, in a presidential primary, all the candidates appear on the ballot, whether Republican, Democrat or belong to a third party. In traditional or open primaries, only party members from a single party appear on the ballot.

A blanket primary also guarantees one candidate from each party advances to the general election.

Flexibility at the Ballot Box

Blanket primaries appeal to voters by allowing them to act independently at the ballot box. The blanket primary offers voters the most choice and flexibility among primary election systems. It also offers third-party candidates a more level playing field.

A blanket primary does not force voters to vote for a single party's candidates. It also does not require voters to declare their affiliation with one party. It allows a single voter to vote for various political party candidates. For example, a voter could cast a ballot for a Democratic candidate for Senate and a Republican candidate for governor.

Criticism of Blanket Primaries

Major political parties tend not to support blanket primaries. The parties tend to favor party loyalty and straight-ticket voting. As noted above, a blanket primary allows voters to vote across party lines.

Critics also say blanket primaries encourage "tactical" voting. A voter might deliberately cast a ballot for the weakest candidate of the party they oppose.

Legal Battles Involving Blanket Primaries

In 1996, voters in California approved Proposition 198. It created a blanket primary in certain state elections.

Four political parties in California brought a lawsuit to overturn Proposition 198 (California Democratic Party v. Jones). They argued the law infringed on their right to associate. Specifically, they argued that letting unaffiliated voters have a say in their party's nomination process was unconstitutional.

In June 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the parties. It ruled that California's blanket primary law was unconstitutional. The Court reasoned that blanket primaries tend to mar the integrity of the party nominating process. The Court said this violates the parties' constitutional right to freedom of association.

Later, court decisions used similar logic to strike down blanket primary systems in Washington and Alaska.

Blanket Primaries Making a Comeback?

Recently, several state legislatures have proposed bills that would create blanket primaries.

In 2023, Wisconsin lawmakers proposed a bill combining nonpartisan blanket primaries and ranked-choice voting. The bill focuses specifically on elections of congressional candidates. It proposes that every candidate appear on a single ballot, and the top five vote-getters advance to the general election. Voters would then engage in ranked-choice voting to determine the winners.

South Dakota and Idaho have also considered nonpartisan blanket primaries in their states.

You May Also Like

The following links offer more information about the general voting process:

For more information, browse FindLaw's Voting section.

Questions? Contact an Attorney

Consider visiting your state's secretary of state website for specific information about voting. Contact a civil rights attorney if you believe someone has violated your voting rights.

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