Understanding Primary Elections: How They Work and The Parties Involved

The Primary Elections take place for most of the country in the months of June, August, and September.  Every American who has registered to vote is eligible to take part in this important election.  The Primary is the final opportunity for voters to voice who will (and who will not) be on the ballot in November.

The process and the parties differ in each state, so here is a quick overview of how (and when) your state votes….and what parties might be on the ballot.

The Parties:

America has quite a few political parties, and those parties will only appear on the ballot in states where they qualified.  Some of the many parties you might see on the ballot in your state include the:

The Primary Voting Process:

The State in which you reside will determine what voting process is used during the Primary Election.  According to FairVote.org, there are four identifiable voting processes used across the country:

Open primary: In an open primary, voters of any affiliation may vote in the primaries of any party they choose. They cannot vote in more than one party’s primary, although that prohibition can be difficult to enforce in the event a party has a runoff election. In many open primary states voters do not indicate partisan affiliation when they register to vote.

Closed primary: In a closed primary, only voters registered with a given party can vote in that party’s primary. Parties may have the option to invite unaffiliated voters to participate, but such independent voters usually are left out of the primary unless they decide to give up their independent status.

Semi-closed primary: In a semi-closed primary, unaffiliated voters may choose which party primary to vote in, while voters registered with a party may only vote in that party’s primary. Representing a middle ground between the exclusion of independent voters in a closed primary and the free-for-all of open primaries, the semi-closed, primary eliminates concerns about voters registered  in other parties from “raiding” another party’s nominating contest.

Top two primary: The top two primary system puts all candidates, regardless of party affiliation, on the same ballot.  The top two vote-getters then face off in the general election. The top two system is used in California and Washington, as well as in Nebraska for its nonpartisan elections to the state’s legislature. Louisiana uses a variation of top two in which a second-round runoff only takes place if a candidate fails to win more than 50% of the vote in the first round.

To see how your state votes compared to other states, visit FairVote.org

Each state holds their primary during a certain month of the year, most occur between mid-summer and early fall.
Here is a list of states and U.S. Territories (75% of the U.S.) that hold their Presidential year primary elections during June, August, and September:

  • June Primary: Alabama, California, Iowa, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Dakota, North Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, and Virginia
  • August Primary: Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington, Wyoming
  • September Primary:  Delaware, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Guam, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Virgin Islands, Wisconsin
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2 responses to “Understanding Primary Elections: How They Work and The Parties Involved

  1. Primary elections were in June in California, and I thought earlier than that in most states. Next election here is the general election in November.

    • Ellen,
      Every state is different…but the largest percentage of the country holds their primaries in either June or August with 14 states voting in each month. The second place “primary” month is September….with 11 states/U.S. Territories voting.

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