This post is a part of Spread The Vote’s voter education program, Voter Ed. As a way to engage the voting population and support discussions about voting 365 days a year, each month, Voter Ed will explore one frequently asked voter question about the voting process. Edwina is our Voter Ed mascot. To learn more about the Voter Ed program and Edwina, you can go to www.SpreadTheVote.org/voter-ed-1. If you’d like to become a Voter Ed partner and receive our monthly state-specific packages, please email VoterEd@SpreadTheVote.org.
Hi! Welcome to Voter Ed. My name is Ed, short for Edwina, and I am here to discuss the voting process. The topic for April is primary elections. I’m going to use this Medium post to give you a bit of information about what primary elections are and how they work. Let’s get started!
When most voters think of election day, they might imagine a general election where they vote to determine which candidate on the ballot will win the position of elected office. However, voters may be less familiar with primary elections. This may explain, in part, why voter turnout is so different for general and primary elections. In the 2016 presidential race, about 60% of Americans who were eligible to vote turned out for the general election while just over 28% of eligible voters voted in a primary election. Even though general elections get a lot of attention, primary elections are just as important and are a significant opportunity to make your voice heard.
So, what are primary elections? Primary elections, or primaries, are elections where voters choose who will be on the ballot for each specific office in the general election. Primary elections are usually held months before a general election. The exact date of each primary often varies by state and depends on the type of primary election being held.
Primary elections are either partisan or non-partisan. In a partisan primary, voters choose which candidate from a political party they would like to represent that political party in the general election. In a nonpartisan primary, voters choose from all of the candidates running for a position, regardless of their political party, and generally, the candidates who received the most votes go on to the general election. It will depend from county to county which primary races are partisan and which are non-partisan. Sometimes, there are both partisan and nonpartisan races on the same primary ballot, but in some states, there are separate nonpartisan ballots. Check with your local elections office to learn more. You’ll know if a primary is partisan or nonpartisan by checking on your local elections office website or if you’re asked to identify your political party when you check in to vote — and are given a ballot labeled for that political party.
The structure of primary elections determines who can vote in them. Primaries can be open, closed, or a combination of the two. In open primary elections, any registered voter can select a political party when they check in to vote and select from candidates in that political party. In closed primary elections, only voters who are registered with a political party can vote for that political party’s candidates. Some states choose to take a mixed approach to primary elections. For example, a state may set different rules for voters who are registered with a party and those who are not. Alternatively, some states may allow methods other than a state-run primary for selecting general election candidates, for example, letting political parties decide for themselves how to run their candidate nomination process. Contact your political party to learn more about how and when these methods are used.
Some things to keep in mind when deciding whether to vote in a primary election:
- In 75% of all elections, the primaries are akin to general elections because of the district’s heavy party leaning. This mean that, in these elections, the candidate you select in the primary that represents the majority party in the district is likely to be the person who wins the position.
- Primary elections are the voter’s chance to choose who they want to see representing their preferred party on the general election ballot. Sometimes, in general elections, voters complain of having to choose between two candidates that they are not excited about. In primaries, voters can decide who would best represent their positions and values and support a candidate they believe in.
- Even if a voter does not feel connected to a political party, voting in a nonpartisan primary can empower voters to make their voice heard in their community. Often, non-partisan races include positions that are especially important at the local level like school board members and judges. Decisions made in these local roles have a direct effect on voters’ everyday lives.
- Primary elections are good for democracy. Through the primary election process, political parties can better understand what voters believe in and want from their representatives in government. As more people take part in primary elections, parties compete, reform, and expand to include more voters in their base. This competition among parties ultimately means more people’s views are taken into account and leads to government being more representative of the people over time.
After deciding to take part in a primary election, the first step is to check your voter registration. Voters can contact their local election office, or in some states, use an online elections portal, to check their registration status or learn how to register for the first time.
- For younger voters, keep in mind that some states allow 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections if they will turn 18 in time for the general election.
- For voters in open primary states, once you are registered to vote, you are ready to participate in a primary election.
- For voters in closed primary states, it’s also important to ensure that your voter registration records reflect your preferred party affiliation ahead of election day.
Finally, voters should check with their local election office to find out early voting or election day polling places and times. If a voter is not able to vote in person on or before primary election day, the voter’s local election office will be able to determine if they would be eligible to vote by mail instead.
Thanks for joining me this month as we learn more about primary elections. Don’t forget to check back next month when we discuss the right to language assistance!
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 Pew Research Center did not estimate turnout in caucus states due to unreliability in recording and reporting caucus turnout.