Can I Vote in the Primary?

Every state has its own rules for voting in the primaries, so knowing your state's laws can determine whether you can choose your party's candidate. 

Understanding the primary election is important for every eligible voter looking to take part in this process. This article provides comprehensive information on the intricate details of primary elections. It covers crucial topics such as the types of primary elections, voting methods, and who votes in primary elections. It aims to give you the knowledge you need to understand the election process and ensure your voice is heard in selecting a candidate.

What Is a Primary Election

Primary election is a method for political parties to select their representative for the upcoming general election. These elections often occur at different government levels, from local elections to statewide races and federal elections. But, political parties put the most attention during the two years leading up to the presidential primary. During the primary election, the voters decide which nominee will carry the Democratic and Republican parties in the general election.

Who Usually Votes in Primaries

The rules on who can vote in a primary election may vary in every state. Some state laws have open primaries. Any registered voter in that jurisdiction can vote in the Democratic or Republican primary election. Meanwhile, other states have closed primaries. Here, voter registration is a prerequisite before the voter can take part in the primary election. Only those registered under a particular political party can vote in that party's primary election.

What Are the Types of Primaries

The three types of primaries are open, closed, and mixed primary.

What Is an Open Primary Election?

Open primaries are elections wherein all registered voters can take part, regardless of political party affiliation. This allows them the flexibility to vote for candidates across their party lines. This system allows voters to pick a candidate from different parties without registering for that particular party. The approach enables the voter to support the candidate they believe to be the most qualified. This is regardless of the boundaries of their parties.

States With Open Primaries

The table below identifies the states wherein at least one political party uses open primaries when conducting congressional and state-level elections:

State

Primary Election

Notes

Alabama

Open

In Alabama, voters can participate in the primary election by stating their preferred political party at the polling place on the day prior to the election.

Arkansas

Open

N/A

Georgia

Open

N/A

Hawaii

Open

N/A

Illinois

Open

To vote in a party's primary, the voter should publicly declare their political affiliation at the polling place.

Indiana

Open

For a voter to join in a party's primary election, the voter should either vote for a majority of the party's candidates in the previous general election or plan to vote for a majority of the party's candidates in the upcoming election. But, according to FairVote, this provision is unenforceable because of secret balloting, which prevents tracking of the voter's choice. (Section 3-10-1-6 of the Indiana Code)

Iowa

Open

Only voters registered to a particular political party can vote in the primary election. Section 43.42 of the Iowa Code stipulates that voters may switch their political party affiliation at the polling place during primary election day and join that party's primary election. (Section 43.38 of the Iowa Code)

Michigan

Open

N/A

Minnesota

Open

N/A

Mississippi

Open

N/A

Missouri

Open

N/A

Montana

Open

N/A

North Dakota

Open

N/A

Ohio

Open

FairVote states that voters can choose their political party affiliation during the primary election day. Suppose the voter took part in the primary election in the past of another party. In that case, they can submit a statement at the polling place during the election day affirming that the voter is changing their party affiliation.

South Carolina

Open

N/A

Tennessee

Open

For a voter to take part in the party's primary, the voter should either be registered with a political party or declare their affiliation with that political party at the polling place during the primary election day. (Section 2-7-115 of the Tennessee Code)

Texas

Open

N/A

Vermont

Open

N/A

Virginia

Open

N/A

Wisconsin

Open

N/A

What Is a Closed Primary Election?

Closed primaries restrict voting only to registered members of the political party. This means that to take part in a closed primary election, the voter should register first as a political party member. For instance, only registered Republicans can vote in a Republican primary. The system emphasizes the limits on voting only to voters who declared their political affiliation.

States With Closed Primaries

The table below identifies the states wherein at least one political party uses closed primaries when conducting congressional and state-level elections:

State

Primary Election

Notes

Connecticut

Closed

Only voters registered with a particular political party can vote in that party's primary. But, the state law also allows a party to decide if they will allow voters not affiliated with any political party to take part in the primary elections. (Section 9-431 of the General Statutes of Connecticut)

Delaware

Closed

 

Florida

Closed

 

Kentucky

Closed

 

Maine

Closed

State law gives political parties the right to decide who can join in the party's primary election.

Maryland

Closed

State law gives political parties the right to decide who can join in the party's primary election.

Nevada

Closed

 

New Mexico

Closed

 

New York

Closed

 

Oklahoma

Closed (Republican Party and Libertarian Party)

The state law limits the primary election to voters registered with that political party. Political parties do not have the authority to decide for themselves if unaffiliated voters can take part in their primaries. (Section 26-1-104 of the Oklahoma Statutes)

Oregon

Closed

 

Pennsylvania

Closed

 

South Dakota

Closed (Republican, Libertarian, and Constitution parties)

A voter registered with a political party can only participate in that party's primary. The law does not allow the parties to assess if unaffiliated voters can vote in their primaries. (Section 12-6-26 of the South Dakota Codified Laws)

Utah

Closed (Republican Party)

 

Washington, D.C.

Closed

 

Wyoming

Closed

To take part in the party's primary election, voters should be registered members of the political party 96 days before the primary election.

What Is Semi-Closed Primary?

Several states adopted variations of the two primaries mentioned. This includes the so-called semi-closed or "mixed primary." Here, voters not affiliated with any political party are called "independents." They can take part in which primary election they want to vote in. For instance, they can vote in either Republican, Democratic, or other party's primary without the need to be a registered member. The mixed primary system restricts voting options for voters affiliated with a particular party. Voters affiliated with a specific political party can only vote in the primary election in which they were registered.

States With Mixed Primaries

The table below identifies the states wherein at least one political party uses semi-closed or mixed primaries when conducting congressional and state-level elections:

State

Primary Election

Notes

Arizona

Semi-Closed

N/A

Colorado

Semi-Closed

N/A

Idaho

Semi-Closed

State law allows political parties to decide who may join in their primary elections. Voters not affiliated with any political party can register with a party on the primary election day. Thereafter, they can take part in the election. Affiliated voters who want to transfer to another party can do so no later than the 10th Friday before the primary election day.

Kansas

Semi-Closed

A voter registered with a political party can only vote for that party's primary. A voter not registered with a political party can show their affiliation with a political party on the day of the primary election and vote for that party's primary. But voters already affiliated with a political party cannot change their political party on the primary election day. (Section 25-3301 of the Kansas Statutes)

Massachusetts

Semi-Closed

N/A

New Hampshire

Semi-Closed

N/A

New Jersey

Semi-Closed

A voter who has not been affiliated with any political party can take part in the primary election of their choice by joining that party on the day of the primary election. Otherwise, voters should declare their party affiliation, such as through voter registration information, no later than the 55th day before the primary election.

New York

Semi-Closed (Reform Party)

The Reform Party opened its primary to independent voters in 2018.

North Carolina

Semi-Closed

 

Oklahoma

Semi-Closed (Democratic Party)

Only a registered party member can participate in that party's primary election. The law does not give political parties the authority to assess for themselves if unaffiliated voters can take part in their primaries. (Section 26-1-104 of the Oklahoma Statutes)

Rhode Island

Semi-Closed

 

South Dakota

Semi-Closed (Democratic Party)

A voter registered with a political party can only take part in that party's primary election. The state law does not give political parties the authority to assess if unaffiliated voters can join in their primary election.

Utah

Semi-Closed (Democratic Party)

 

West Virginia

Semi-Closed

State law allows political parties to decide if an unaffiliated voter can join their primary election.

Can I Still Vote in the General Election if I Am Away From Home?

Yes. You can still exercise your voting rights through absentee voting or submitting an absentee ballot application. With an absentee ballot, you can do early voting by dropping off your absentee ballot in a drop box or through the mail. Here, you have to register as a voter online, by mail ballot, or in person at the election office in your state.

U.S. citizens at least 18 years of age, living outside of the United States, may register to vote as absentee voters. Military service members and their family members may likewise register as absentee voters. Note, however, that to be an absentee voter, you should first meet the eligibility requirements to be a voter, submit a voter registration form, and request an absentee ballot.

Can I Register as a Voter on the Election Day?

It depends on the state where you are casting your vote. There are 23 states, and Washington, D.C., has allowed same-day registration for first-time voters as of October 2023. If you are a qualified state resident, you can register as a voter and vote on the same day you go to the polling place on Election Day. The following are the states that allow same-day and election-day registration:

1. California

2. Colorado

3. Connecticut

4. District of Columbia

5. Hawaii

6. Idaho

7. Illinois

8. Iowa

9. Maine

10. Maryland

11. Michigan

12. Minnesota

13. Montana

14. Nevada

15. New Hampshire

16. New Mexico

17. North Carolina

18. Utah

19. Vermont

20. Virginia

21. Washington

22. Wisconsin

23. Wyoming

In other states, you should register as a voter on or before the voter registration deadline. The deadline may differ in every state, although most are between eight to 30 days before Election Day.

In some cases, you can also vote using a provisional ballot. When they go to the polling place on election day, voters receive provisional ballots if they cannot prove their eligibility to vote. Provisional ballots ensure that all eligible voters are not denied this fundamental right by mere administrative error.

Preserve Your Rights To Vote: Talk to a Civil Rights Attorney

Understanding your right to vote in a primary election can be confusing. The election laws vary in each state, and you often have questions about your voting eligibility. If you have concerns about your registration status or other matters related to your voting rights, it is best to seek legal advice from a civil rights attorney. They can help you understand your case and assist you with filing your voter registration application.

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