A primary election
), also referred to simply as a
, is an election in which voters in a
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 States, where their origins are traced to the progressive
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
Besides primaries, other ways that parties may select candidates
, and nomination meetings.
Historically, Canadian political
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
- 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
- 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 Virginia, Republican primaries are
open to independents, while Democratic primaries were
However, as of April 1, 2007, West Virginia's
opened its voting to allow "individuals who are not affiliated with
any existing recognized party to participate in the election
Primaries can also be used in nonpartisan
elections to reduce the set of
candidates that go on to the general election (qualifying
). (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
that is in effect a run-off. This often has the effect
of eliminating minor
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
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
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
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.
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
), 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
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
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 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
(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
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
'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.
- Alabama - Open
Primary (Feb 5). Deadline (10 Days - Jan 26).
- Alaska - Caucuses
(Feb 5). Deadline (30 Days - Jan 6).
- Arizona - Closed PPE
(Feb 5). Deadline (30 Days - Jan 6).
- Arkansas - Open
Primary (Feb 5). Deadline (30 Days - Jan 6).
- California - Primary (Feb 5). Deadline (15 Days - Jan
- Colorado - Caucuses
(Feb 5). Deadline (29 Days - Jan 7). (For Democrats, the
deadline to register is Feb 5)
- Connecticut - Closed Primary (Feb 5). Deadline (12 Noon,
- Delaware - Closed Primary (Feb 5). Deadline (24 Days
- Jan 12).
- District of Columbia - Primary (Feb 12). Deadline (30 Days - Jan
- Florida - Closed Primary (Jan 29). Deadline (29 Days
- Jan 1).
- Georgia - Semi-Open Primary (Feb 5). Deadline (Jan
- Hawaii - Open
Caucuses (Mar 2). Deadline (30 Days - Feb 1).
- Idaho - Open
Primary (May 27). Deadline (May 2 for pre registration.
Registration allowed on Election Day).
- Illinois - Semi-Open Primary (Feb 5). Deadline (27
Days - Jan 9).
- Indiana - Open Primary (May 6). Deadline (28 Days -
- Iowa - Caucus (Jan 3). Deadline (10 days - Dec
- Kansas - Caucuses
(Feb 9). Deadline (15 Days - Jan 25).
- Kentucky - Closed Primary (May 20). Deadline for new
registrations (28 Days - Apr 22). Deadline for party switch (Dec
- Louisiana - Caucus (Feb 9). Deadline (Jan 11).
- Maine - Caucuses
(February 1 through February 3). Deadline (None - Day of
Election though check the rules regarding this caucus).
- Maryland - Closed Primary (Feb 12). Deadline (21 Days
- Jan 22).
- Massachusetts - Semi-Closed Primary (Feb 5). Deadline (1
Day - Jan 16).
- Michigan - Open Primary (Jan 15). Deadline (30 Days -
- Minnesota - Open Caucuses (Feb 5 *). Deadline (20 Days
- Jan 16).
- Mississippi - Open Primary (Mar 11). Deadline (30 Days -
- Missouri - Open Primary (Feb 5). Deadline (4th
Wednesday Prior - Jan 9).
- Montana - Open Primary (Jun 3). Deadline (30 Days -
- Nebraska - Primary (May 13 *). Deadline (Second
Friday before an election, May 2).
- Nevada - Caucuses
(Jan 19). Deadline (30 Days - Dec 20, 2007).
- New Hampshire - Semi-Open
Primary (Jan 8). Deadline (10 Days - Dec 28, 2007).
Jersey - 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.
Mexico - Republican Primary (Jun 3). Deadline (28
Days - May 6) Democrat closed caucus Feb 5, 2008 (deadline January
York - Closed Primary (Feb 5). Deadline (25 Days
- Jan 11).
- North Carolina - Primary (May 6 *). Deadline (30 Days - Apr
6). Early voting starts April 17
- North Dakota - Open Caucuses (Feb 5). Deadline (No
registration. Must have residency for 30 days - Jan 6).
- Ohio - Semi-Open
Primary (Mar 4). Deadline (30 Days - Feb 3).
- Oklahoma - Closed Primary (Feb 5). Deadline (24 Days
- Jan 12).
- Oregon - Closed
Primary (May 20). Deadline (21 Days - Apr 29).
- Pennsylvania - Closed Primary (Apr 22). Deadline (30 Days
- Mar 23).
- Rhode Island - Primary (Mar 4). Deadline (30 Days - Feb
- South Carolina - Open
Primary (Jan 19 for Republicans, Jan 26 for Democrats).
Deadline (30 days - Dec 20, 2007 for Republicans and Dec 25, 2007
- South Dakota - Closed Primary (Jun 3). Deadline (15 Days
- May 19).
- Tennessee - Open Primary (Feb 5). Deadline (30 Days -
- Texas - 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).
- Utah - Closed
Primary (Feb 5). Deadline (30 Days - Jan 6).
- Vermont - Open Primary (Mar 4). Deadline (Feb 27,
- Virginia - Open Primary (Feb 12). Deadline (29 Days -
- Washington - 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 Virginia -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).
- Wisconsin - Open Primary (Feb 19). Deadline (The day
before or the day of at your polling precinct).
- Wyoming - Caucus (Mar 8).
- Note that these Primaries / Caucuses may be changed to
a date earlier than stated.
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
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
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
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
- United States
Party presidential primaries, 2008.
Party presidential primaries, 2008.
- Primary elections in
- Uruguay, since 1999.
New Democratic Party (South Korea, 2007).
- Armenia. In an innovation on 2007 November 24 and
25, one political party conducted a non-binding Armenia-wide
primary election. The party, the Armenian Revolutionary
Federation, invited the public to vote to advise the party
which of two candidates they should formally nominate for President
of Armenia in the subsequent official election. What characterized
it as a primary instead of a standard opinion poll was that the
public knew of the primary in advance, all eligible voters were
invited, and the voting was by secret ballot. "Some 68,183
people . . . voted in make-shift tents and mobile
ballot boxes . . ."
- United Kingdom. On August 4 2009, Dr. Sarah Wollaston was
chosen by Open Primary as the Conservative Party candidate for
Totnes, for the
election, the first time such a mechanism has been used to pick
a prospective candidate for an election in the UK. This was after
the current incumbent Anthony Steen
decided to step down in the wake of the MPs expenses
scandal. The Conservatives have plans to roll this out further
and there are hopes other parties may nominate future candidates in
- "Democrats Set Primary Calendar and Penalties",
Times, August 20, 2006
- Horizon Armenian Weekly, English Supplement, 2007
December 3, page E1, "ARF conducts 'Primaries' ", a Yerkir agency
report from the Armenian capital, Yerevan.
- Bibby, John, and Holbrook, Thomas. 2004. Politics in the
American States: A Comparative Analysis, 8th Edition. Ed.
Virginia Gray and Russell L. Hanson. Washington D.C.: CQ Press,
- Brereton Charles. First in the Nation: New Hampshire and
the Premier Presidential Primary. Portsmouth, NH: Peter E.
Randall Publishers, 1987.
- Hershey, Majorie. Political Parties in America, 12th
Edition. New York: Pearson Longman, 2007. p. 157-73.
- Kendall, Kathleen E. Communication in the Presidential Primaries:
Candidates and the Media, 1912-2000 (2000)
- Primaries: Open and Closed
- Palmer, Niall A. The New Hampshire Primary and the American Electoral
- Scala, Dante J. Stormy Weather: The New Hampshire Primary
and Presidential Politics (2003)
- Ware, Alan. The American Direct Primary: Party
Institutionalization and Transformation in the North
(2002), the invention of primaries around 1900