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A primary election (nominating primary), also referred to simply as a primary, is an election in which voters in a jurisdiction select candidates for a subsequent election. In other words, primary elections are one means by which a political party nominates candidates for the following general election.What is a general election? Primaries are common in the United Statesmarker, where their origins are traced to the progressive movement. There, primary elections are conducted by government on behalf of the parties. Elsewhere in the world, the nomination of candidates is usually the responsibility of the political party organizations themselves and does not involve the general public.

Besides primaries, other ways that parties may select candidates include caucuses, conventions, and nomination meetings. Historically, Canadian political parties chose their candidates in party meetings in each constituency. Canadian party leaders are elected at leadership conventions, although some parties have abandoned this practice in favour of one member, one vote systems.


  • Closed. People may vote in a party's primary only if they are registered members of that party. Independents cannot participate. Note that because some political parties name themselves independent, the term "non-partisan" often replaces "independent" when referring to those who are not affiliated with a political party.
  • Semi-closed. As in closed primaries, registered party members can vote only in their own party's primary. Semi-closed systems, however, allow unaffiliated voters to participate as well. Depending on the state, independents either make their choice of party primary privately, inside the voting booth, or publicly, by registering with any party on Election Day.
  • Open. A registered voter may vote in any party primary regardless of his own party affiliation. When voters do not register with a party before the primary, it is called a pick-a-party primary because the voter can select which party's primary he or she wishes to vote in on election day. Because of the open nature of this system, a practice known as raiding may occur. Raiding consists of voters of one party crossing over and voting in the primary of another party, effectively allowing a party to help choose its opposition's candidate. The theory is that opposing party members vote for the weakest candidate of the opposite party in order to give their own party the advantage in the general election. An example of this can be seen in the 1998 Vermont senatorial primary with the election of Fred Tuttle for the Republican candidate.
  • Semi-open. A registered voter must not publicly declare which political party's primary that they will vote in before entering the voting booth. When a voter identifies their self to the election officials, they must request a party's specific ballot. Only one ballot is cast by the voter. In many states with semi-open primaries, election officials or poll workers from their respective parties record each voter's choice of party and provide access to this information. The primary difference between a semi-open and open primary system is the use of a party-specific ballot. In a semi-open primary, a public declaration in front of the election judges is made and a party-specific ballot given to the voter to cast. Certain states that use the open-primary format may print a single ballot and the voter must choose on the ballot itself which political party's candidates they will select for a contested office.
  • Run-off. A primary in which the ballot is not restricted to one party and the top two candidates advance to the general election regardless of party affiliation. (A run-off differs from a primary in that a second round is only needed if no candidate attains a majority in the first round.)

There are also mixed systems in use. In West Virginiamarker, Republican primaries are open to independents, while Democratic primaries were closed. However, as of April 1, 2007, West Virginia's Democratic Party opened its voting to allow "individuals who are not affiliated with any existing recognized party to participate in the election process".


Primaries can also be used in nonpartisan elections to reduce the set of candidates that go on to the general election (qualifying primary). (In the U.S., many city, county and school board elections are non-partisan.) Generally twice as many candidates pass the primary as can win in the general election, so a single seat election primary would allow the top two primary candidates to participate in the general election following.

When a qualifying primary is applied to a partisan election, it becomes what is generally known as a Louisiana primary: typically, if no candidate wins a majority in the primary, the two candidates receiving the highest pluralities, regardless of party affiliation, go on to a general election that is in effect a run-off. This often has the effect of eliminating minor parties from the general election, and frequently the general election becomes a single-party election. Unlike a plurality voting system, a run-off system meets the Condorcet loser criterion in that the candidate that ultimately wins would not have been beaten in a two way race with every one of the other candidates.

Because many Washington residents were disappointed over the loss of their blanket primary, which the Washington State Grange helped institute in 1935, the Grange filed Initiative 872 in 2004 to establish a Louisiana or Top 2 primary for partisan races, thereby allowing voters to once again cross party lines in the primary election. The two candidates with the most votes then advance to the general election, regardless of their party affiliation. Supporters claimed it would bring back voter choice; opponents said it would exclude third parties and independents from general election ballots, could result in Democrat or Republican-only races in certain districts, and would in fact reduce voter choice. The initiative was put to a public vote in November 2004 and passed. On July 15, 2005, the initiative was found unconstitutional by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington. The Supreme Court heard the Grange's appeal of the case in October 2007. In March 2008, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality the Grange-sponsored Top 2 primary; the first election under the system was held in August 2008.

Open primaries have also been placed to the voters in California (as Proposition 62), but failed after heavy advertising from the established political parties bringing up the specter of the Louisiana primary and of the 2002 French presidential election.

In elections using voting systems where strategic nomination is a concern, primaries can be very important in preventing "clone" candidates that split their constituency's vote because of their similarities. Primaries allow political parties to select and unite behind one candidate. However, tactical voting is sometimes a concern in non-partisan primaries as members of the opposite party can strategically vote for the weaker candidate in order to face an easier general election.


In the United States, Iowa and New Hampshire have drawn attention every four years because they hold the first caucus and primary election, respectively, and often give a candidate the momentum to win the nomination. This has been witnessed in every Republican primary race since 1968, where the candidate ahead in the opinion polls before the New Hampshire primary has won New Hampshire and gone on to win the Republican Party nomination, with the exception of Pat Buchanan in 1996 and John McCain in 2000. Although not such a foregone conclusion as in the Republican primaries, the Democrat winner of New Hampshire in around 70% of cases since 1964 have also gone on to win the Democrats' nomination.

A criticism of the current presidential primary election schedule is that it gives undue weight to the few states with early primaries, as those states often build momentum for leading candidates and rule out trailing candidates long before the rest of the country has even had a chance to weigh in, leaving the last states with virtually no actual input on the process. The counterargument to this criticism, however, is that, by subjecting candidates to the scrutiny of a few early states, the parties can weed out candidates who are unfit for office.

The Democratic National Committee (DNC) proposed a new schedule and a new rule set for the 2008 Presidential primary elections. Among the changes: the primary election cycle would start nearly a year earlier than in previous cycles, states from the West and the South would be included in the earlier part of the schedule, and candidates who run in primary elections not held in accordance with the DNC's proposed schedule (as the DNC does not have any direct control over each state's official election schedules) would be penalized by being stripped of delegates won in offending states. The New York Times called the move, "the biggest shift in the way Democrats have nominated their presidential candidates in 30 years."

Of note regarding the DNC's proposed 2008 Presidential primary election schedule is that it contrasts with the Republican National Committee's (RNC) rules regarding Presidential primary elections. "No presidential primary, caucus, convention, or other meeting may be held for the purpose of voting for a presidential candidate and/or selecting delegates or alternate delegates to the national convention, prior to the first Tuesday of February in the year in which the national convention is held."

Presidential Primary systems state-by-state

For information about a particular state's primary system as of January 2008 see list below. The best source of up-to-date information is often the official website of the state in question, but this can be hard to find. For example, California lists detailed information about its current "modified closed" (i.e. semi-closed) system on the California state website. Similarly, information on the Arizona semi-closed primary system can be found on the Arizona state website. For Presidential candidate delegate assignment, however, Arizona conducts a Presidential Preference Election (PPE), distinguishing the contest from the state's primary election laws. Arizona's PPE is closed to those not registered with a state-recognized party.
  • Alabamamarker - Open Primary (Feb 5). Deadline (10 Days - Jan 26).
  • Alaskamarker - Caucuses (Feb 5). Deadline (30 Days - Jan 6).
  • Arizonamarker - Closed PPE (Feb 5). Deadline (30 Days - Jan 6).
  • Arkansasmarker - Open Primary (Feb 5). Deadline (30 Days - Jan 6).
  • Californiamarker - Primary (Feb 5). Deadline (15 Days - Jan 22).
  • Coloradomarker - Caucuses (Feb 5). Deadline (29 Days - Jan 7). (For Democrats, the deadline to register is Feb 5)
  • Connecticutmarker - Closed Primary (Feb 5). Deadline (12 Noon, Feb 4).
  • Delawaremarker - Closed Primary (Feb 5). Deadline (24 Days - Jan 12).
  • District of Columbiamarker - Primary (Feb 12). Deadline (30 Days - Jan 13)
  • Floridamarker - Closed Primary (Jan 29). Deadline (29 Days - Jan 1).
  • Georgiamarker - Semi-Open Primary (Feb 5). Deadline (Jan 7).
  • Hawaiimarker - Open Caucuses (Mar 2). Deadline (30 Days - Feb 1).
  • Idahomarker - Open Primary (May 27). Deadline (May 2 for pre registration. Registration allowed on Election Day).
  • Illinoismarker - Semi-Open Primary (Feb 5). Deadline (27 Days - Jan 9).
  • Indianamarker - Open Primary (May 6). Deadline (28 Days - Apr 9).
  • Iowamarker - Caucus (Jan 3). Deadline (10 days - Dec 24, 2007).
  • Kansasmarker - Caucuses (Feb 9). Deadline (15 Days - Jan 25).
  • Kentuckymarker - Closed Primary (May 20). Deadline for new registrations (28 Days - Apr 22). Deadline for party switch (Dec 31, 2007)
  • Louisianamarker - Caucus (Feb 9). Deadline (Jan 11).
  • Mainemarker - Caucuses (February 1 through February 3). Deadline (None - Day of Election though check the rules regarding this caucus).
  • Marylandmarker - Closed Primary (Feb 12). Deadline (21 Days - Jan 22).
  • Massachusettsmarker - Semi-Closed Primary (Feb 5). Deadline (1 Day - Jan 16).
  • Michiganmarker - Open Primary (Jan 15). Deadline (30 Days - Jan 6).
  • Minnesotamarker - Open Caucuses (Feb 5 *). Deadline (20 Days - Jan 16).
  • Mississippimarker - Open Primary (Mar 11). Deadline (30 Days - Feb 10).
  • Missourimarker - Open Primary (Feb 5). Deadline (4th Wednesday Prior - Jan 9).
  • Montanamarker - Open Primary (Jun 3). Deadline (30 Days - May 4).
  • Nebraskamarker - Primary (May 13 *). Deadline (Second Friday before an election, May 2).
  • Nevadamarker - Caucuses (Jan 19). Deadline (30 Days - Dec 20, 2007).
  • New Hampshiremarker - Semi-Open Primary (Jan 8). Deadline (10 Days - Dec 28, 2007).
  • New Jerseymarker - Primary (Feb 5). Deadline for new registrations (21 Days - Jan 15, 2008). Deadline for party switch (50 days - Dec 17, 2007). Unaffiliated voters can declare on the day of primary.
  • New Mexicomarker - Republican Primary (Jun 3). Deadline (28 Days - May 6) Democrat closed caucus Feb 5, 2008 (deadline January 4).
  • New Yorkmarker - Closed Primary (Feb 5). Deadline (25 Days - Jan 11).
  • North Carolinamarker - Primary (May 6 *). Deadline (30 Days - Apr 6). Early voting starts April 17
  • North Dakotamarker - Open Caucuses (Feb 5). Deadline (No registration. Must have residency for 30 days - Jan 6).
  • Ohiomarker - Semi-Open Primary (Mar 4). Deadline (30 Days - Feb 3).
  • Oklahomamarker - Closed Primary (Feb 5). Deadline (24 Days - Jan 12).
  • Oregonmarker - Closed Primary (May 20). Deadline (21 Days - Apr 29).
  • Pennsylvaniamarker - Closed Primary (Apr 22). Deadline (30 Days - Mar 23).
  • Rhode Islandmarker - Primary (Mar 4). Deadline (30 Days - Feb 3).
  • South Carolinamarker - Open Primary (Jan 19 for Republicans, Jan 26 for Democrats). Deadline (30 days - Dec 20, 2007 for Republicans and Dec 25, 2007 for Democrats).
  • South Dakotamarker - Closed Primary (Jun 3). Deadline (15 Days - May 19).
  • Tennesseemarker - Open Primary (Feb 5). Deadline (30 Days - Jan 6).
  • Texasmarker - Semi-Open Primary (Mar 4) & Closed Caucus (begins Mar 4, schedule based on party rules). Voting in primary is prerequisite for caucusing at precinct convention, which convenes after primary polls close. Deadline (Feb 4, 2008).
  • Utahmarker - Closed Primary (Feb 5). Deadline (30 Days - Jan 6).
  • Vermontmarker - Open Primary (Mar 4). Deadline (Feb 27, 2008).
  • Virginiamarker - Open Primary (Feb 12). Deadline (29 Days - Jan 14).
  • Washingtonmarker - Open Caucus (Feb 9) & Primary (Feb 19). This is a two step process. Deadline (30 Days via mail or online, 15 Days in Person Friday, Jan 25).
  • West Virginiamarker -Closed Primary (18 Delegates at the State Convention on Feb 5 (ask the state party for details), 12 Delegates for the May 13 Primary).
    • Deadline (21 days to register or change your party to Republican - Apr 22 for the Primary).
  • Wisconsinmarker - Open Primary (Feb 19). Deadline (The day before or the day of at your polling precinct).
  • Wyomingmarker - Caucus (Mar 8).

* - Note that these Primaries / Caucuses may be changed to a date earlier than stated.

Primary classifications

While it is clear that the Closed/Semi-Closed/Semi-Open/Open classification commonly used by scholars studying primary systems does not fully explain the highly nuanced differences seen from state to state, they are still very useful and have real-world implications for the electorate, election officials, and the candidates themselves.

As far as the electorate is concerned, the extent of participation allowed to weak partisans and independents depends almost solely on which of the aforementioned categories best describes their state's primary system. Clearly, open and semi-open systems favor this type of voter, since they can choose which primary they vote in on a yearly basis under these models. In closed primary systems, true independents are, for all practical purposes, shut out of the process.

This classification further affects the relationship between primary elections and election commissioners and officials. The more open the system, the greater the chance of raiding, or voters voting in the other party's primary in hopes of getting a weaker opponent chosen to run against a strong candidate in the general election. Raiding has proven stressful to the relationships between political parties, who feel cheated by the system, and election officials, who try to make the system run as smoothly as possible.

Perhaps the most dramatic effect this classification system has on the primary process is its influence on the candidates themselves. Whether a system is open or closed dictates the way candidates run their campaigns. In a closed system, from the time a candidate qualifies to the day of the primary, he must cater to strong partisans, who tend to lean to the extreme ends of the ideological spectrum. In the general election, on the other hand, the candidate must move more towards the center in hopes of capturing a plurality.

Primaries worldwide


  1. "Democrats Set Primary Calendar and Penalties", New York Times, August 20, 2006
  2. Horizon Armenian Weekly, English Supplement, 2007 December 3, page E1, "ARF conducts 'Primaries' ", a Yerkir agency report from the Armenian capital, Yerevan.


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