Primary election

Primary election

A primary election is an election in which party members or voters select candidates for a subsequent election. Primary elections are one means by which a political party nominates candidates for the next general election.

Primaries are common in the United States, where their origins are traced to the progressive movement. There, primary elections are conducted by the 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.



Most countries in which primary elections are organized by parties, not the administration, generally distinguish only two types of primaries:

  • Closed primary (synonyms: internal primaries, party primaries). In the case of closed primaries, internal primaries, or party primaries, only party members can vote.
  • Open primary. All voters can take part in an open primary, but the party may require them to express their support to the party's values and pay a small contribution to the costs of the primary.

In the United States, other types can be differentiated:

  • Closed primary. 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 primary. 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 need not publicly declare which political party's primary that they will vote in before entering the voting booth. When voters identify themselves to the election officials, they must request a party's specific ballot. Only one ballot is cast by each 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, where state law allows parties to determine whether primaries are open to independents, 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 in the United States


Primaries can 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, if a candidate receives more than 50% of the vote in the primary, he or she is automatically elected, without having to run again in the general election. If no candidate receives a majority, 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[clarification needed] 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.

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."[1]

Of note regarding the DNC's proposed 2008 Presidential primary election schedule is that it contrasted 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."[2] In 2012, this date is February 7.

Primary systems state-by-state


In California, under Proposition 14, a measure that easily passed, traditional party primaries will be replaced in 2011 with wide-open elections.[3]


Oregon became the first American state in which a binding primary election was conducted entirely via the internet. The election was held by the Independent Party of Oregon in July, 2010.[4]


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.[5] Similarly, information on the Arizona semi-closed primary system can be found on the Arizona state website.[6][7] 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.[8]

  • 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 - Semi-Open Primary (Feb 5). Deadline (15 Days - Jan 22).
  • 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, Feb 4).
  • Delaware - Closed Primary (Feb 5). Deadline (24 Days - Jan 12).
  • District of Columbia - Primary (Feb 12). Deadline (30 Days - Jan 13)
  • Florida - Closed Primary (Jan 29). Deadline (29 Days - Jan 1).
  • Georgia - Open Primary (Feb 5). Deadline (Jan 7).
  • 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 - Apr 9).
  • Iowa - Caucus (Jan 3). Deadline (10 days - Dec 24, 2007).
  • 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 31, 2007)
  • 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 - Jan 6).
  • Minnesota - Open Caucuses (Feb 5 *). Deadline (20 Days - Jan 16).
  • Mississippi - Open Primary (Mar 11). Deadline (30 Days - Feb 10).
  • Missouri - Open Primary (Feb 5). Deadline (4th Wednesday Prior - Jan 9).
  • Montana - Open Primary (Jun 3). Deadline (30 Days - May 4).
  • 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).[9]
  • New 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.
  • New Mexico - Republican Primary (Jun 3). Deadline (28 Days - May 6) Democrat closed caucus Feb 5, 2008 (deadline January 4).
  • New York - Closed Primary (Feb 5). Deadline (25 Days - Jan 11).
  • North Carolina - Semi-Open 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 3).
  • South Carolina - 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 Dakota - Closed Primary (Jun 3). Deadline (15 Days - May 19).
  • Tennessee - Open Primary (Feb 5). Deadline (30 Days - Jan 6).
  • 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, 2008).
  • Virginia - Open Primary (Feb 12). Deadline (29 Days - Jan 14).
  • 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.

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.

Daniel Hannan, a British politician and Member of the European Parliament, opines "Open primaries are the best idea in contemporary politics. They shift power from party hierarchs to voters, from Whips to backbenchers and from ministers to Parliament. They serve to make legislatures more diverse and legislators more independent."[10][11] contains voting information by State including seats repartition, Poll location, Voting registration and more.

Primaries in Europe

In Europe, primaries are not organised by the public administration but by parties themselves. Legislation is mostly silent on primaries. The main reason to this is that the voting method used to form governments, be it proportional representation or two-round systems, lessens the need for an open primary. Party fragmentation reduces wasted votes and does not hamper the chances to win, like in single-winner elections. Coalitions can be formed before (Sweden) or afterwards (Netherlands).

Governments are not involved in the process, however, parties may need their cooperation, notably in the case of an open primary, e.g. to obtain the electoral roll, or to cover the territory with a sufficient number of polling stations.

Whereas closed primaries are rather common within many European countries, few political parties in Europe already opted for open primaries. Parties generally organise primaries to nominate the party leader (leadership election). The underlying reason for that is that most European countries are parliamentary democracies. National governments are derived from the majority in the Parliament, which means that the head of the government is generally the leader of the winning party. France is one exception to this rule.

Unlike at Member State level, primaries are completely unknown at the level of the European Union. So far, European political parties, which are federations of national political parties and are mainly based in Brussels, never consult individual party members (let alone voters) while designating their top candidates; however, some European parties are considering to change that for the next European elections in 2014.

Closed primaries happen in many European countries, while open primaries have so far only occurred in the socialist and social-democratic parties in Greece and Italy, whereas the France's Socialist Party is about to organise the first open primary in France in October 2011.


In Italy, the first open primaries took place on the 16th October 2005. It led to the designation of Romano Prodi as leader of the great Olive Tree coalition, which gathered several center and left-wing parties, for the legislative elections of the 9th and 10th April 2006. Romano Prodi won the election, but his small advance in the Senate (two seats) helped the Upper house pass a vote of no-confidence two years later.


In France, parties are frequently created, akin to the Fifth Republic's nonpartisan ideal (a President beyond partisanship). This long prevented the making of primaries, but it has grown in popularity on the left-wing as a tool to overcome divisions.

In presidential races, parties are usually the tool of their leader. None of the six Presidents elected through direct election faced an internal election. The first round of voting is used instead as an open primary, sometimes to the dismay of a whole camp.

  • In 2007, Sarkozy, President of the UMP, organized an approval "primary" without any opponent. He won by 98% and made his candidacy speech thereafter.
  • On the left however, the Socialist Party, which helped Mitterrand gain the Presidency for 14 years, has been plagued by internal divisions since the latter departed from politics. Rather than forming a new party, which is the habit on the right-wing, the party started to elect its running mate internally.
    • A first try in 1995: Lionel Jospin won the nomination three months before the election. He lost in the run-off to Chirac. Later in 2002, although the candidacy of then-PM Jospin was undisputed, each of the 5 left-wing parties of the government he led sent a candidate. . . paving the way for a loss of all five.
    • The idea made progress coming near the 2007 race, once the referendum on a European constitution was over. The latter showed strong ideological divisions within the left-wing spectrum, and the Socialist party itself. This prevented the possibility of a primary spanning the whole left-wing, that would give its support to a presidential candidate, similar to the Italian example.
    • Given that no majority supported either a leader or a split, a closed primary was organized, which Ségolène Royal won. She qualified to the national run-off that she lost to Sarkozy. She had previously convinced the party to launch a massive registration campaign, enabling membership for only 20 euros.
    • A first open primary will take place in late 2011 to pick up the Socialist party and the Radical Party of the Left nominee for the 2012 presidential election. Inspired by the 2008 U.S. primaries, it is seen as a way to reinvigorate the party. It was also criticized for going against the nature of the regime. It shall be noted that the open primary is not state-organized. The party will take charge of all the elecotral procedures, planning to set up 10,000 voting polls. Those on the electoral rolls, party members of Socialist party and the Radical Party of the Left, and members of the parties' youth organisation (MJS and JRG) , including minors of 15 to 18 years old, will be entitled to vote in exchange of a euro to cover the costs.
  • Other parties organize membership primaries to choose their nominee, such as Europe Ecologie - Les Verts (EE-LV) (2006, 2011), and the Front National (FN) in 2011.
  • At the local level, primaries are extremely rare: In order to tame potential feud in his party, and prepare the ground for a long campaign, Sarkozy pushed for a closed primary in 2006 to designate the UMP candidate for the 2008 election of the Mayor of Paris. Françoise de Panafieu was elected in a four-way race. However, she did not clinch the mayorship two years later.

Socialist parties

In autumn 2010, here was how the twenty-nine socialist, social-democratic, and labour parties member of the Party of European Socialists (PES) had designated their party leader:

  • Only two parties organised an open primary: Greece (ΠΑΣΟΚ), Italy (PD)
  • Closed primary happened in nine parties: Belgium (sp.a, PS), Cyprus (ΕΔΕΚ), Denmark (SD), France (PS), Ireland (LP), Netherlands (PvdA), Portugal (PS), United-Kingdom (Labour)
    The case of UK's Labour party leadership election is specific, as three electoral colleges, each accounting for one third of the votes, participate in this primary election: Labourite members of Parliament and of the European Parliament, party members, members of affiliated organisations.
  • The designation of the party leader was made by the party's congress in the eighteen remaining parties: Austria (SPÖ), Bulgaria (БСП), Czech Republic (ČSSD), Estonia (SDE), Finland (SDP), Germany (SPD), Hungary (MSZP), Latvia (LSDSP), Lithuania (SDPL), Luxembourg (LSAP), Malta (LP), Poland (SLD, UP), Rumania (PSD), Slovakia (SMER-SD), Slovenia (SD), Spain (PSOE), Sweden (SAP), United-Kingdom / Northern Ireland (SDLP)

European Union

With a view to the European elections, many European political parties consider organising a presidential primary. Indeed, the Lisbon treaty, which entered into force in December 2009, lays down that the European Parliament now elects the European Commission president, who is the true head of the European Executive, on the basis of the results of the European elections. Parties are therefore encouraged to designate their candidates for Commission president ahead of the next election in 2014, in order to allow voters to vote with a full knowledge of the facts. Many movements are now asking for primaries to designate these candidates.

  • Already in April 2004, a former British conservative MEP, Tom Spencer, advocated for American-style primaries in the European People's Party: "A series of primary elections would be held at two-week intervals in February and March 2009. The primaries would start in the five smallest countries and continue every two weeks until the big five voted in late March. To avoid swamping by the parties from the big countries, one could divide the number of votes cast for each candidate in each country by that country's voting weight in the Council of Ministers. Candidates for the post of president would have to declare by 1 January 2009."[12]
  • Following the defeat of the Party of European Socialists during the European elections of June 2009, the PES Congress that took place in Prague in December 2009 made the decision that PES would designate its own candidate before the 2014 European elections. A Campaign for a PES primary[13] was then launched by PES supporters in June 2010, and it managed to cinvince the PES Council meeting in Warsaw in December 2010 to set up Working Group "Candidate 2014" in charge of proposing a procedure and timetable for a "democratic" and "transparent" designation process "bringing on board all our parties and all levels within the parties".[14]

The European think-tank Notre Europe also evokes the idea that European political parties should designate their candidate for Vice-president / High representative of the Union for foreigh affairs.[15] This would lead European parties to have "presidential tickets" on the American model.

Finally, the European Parliament envisaged to introduce a requirement for internal democracy in the regulation on the statute of European political parties. European parties would therefore have to involve individual members in the major decisions such as designating the presidential candidate.[16]

Primaries worldwide

See also

  • Sore-loser law, which states that the loser in a primary election cannot thereafter run as an independent in the general election


  • Thomas W. Williams (Los Angeles), opposed the direct primary, 1915


  1. ^ "Democrats Set Primary Calendar and Penalties", New York Times, August 20, 2006
  2. ^ "". Retrieved 2009-01-30. 
  3. ^ McKinley, Jesse (June 9, 2010). "Calif. Voting Change Could Signal Big Political Shift". The New York Times. 
  4. ^ "E-votong? Not ready yet.". Retrieved 2010-08-11. 
  5. ^ "California Secretary of the State voter information". Retrieved 2009-01-30. 
  6. ^ "Arizona State Legislature method of voting". Retrieved 2009-01-30. 
  7. ^ "Opinion of Arizona Secretary of State". Retrieved 2009-01-30. 
  8. ^ "Arizona Secretary of State, Presidential Preference Election Filing Information". Retrieved 2009-01-30. 
  9. ^ "New Hampshire Secretary of the State's Office, How to Register to Vote in New Hampshire". Retrieved 2009-01-30. 
  10. ^ "Do open primaries favour plutocrats and extremists?". London: 2010-08-29. Retrieved 2010-10-31. 
  11. ^
  12. ^ (English) Article by Tom Spencer in European Voice American-style primaries would breathe life into European elections 22.04.2004
  13. ^ (English) Website of the Campaign for a PES primary
  14. ^ (English) Resolution of the PES Council in Warsaw, A democratic and transparent process for designating the PES candidate for the European Commission Presidency, 2nd December 2010
  15. ^ (French) Les Brefs de Notre Europe, Des réformes institutionnelles à la politisation - Ou comment l’Union européenne du Traité de Lisbonne peut intéresser ses citoyens, October 2010
  16. ^ (English) European Parliament press release, Constitutional Affairs Committee discusses pan-European political parties, 31st January 2011
  17. ^ Horizon Armenian Weekly, English Supplement, 2007 December 3, page E1, "ARF conducts 'Primaries' ", a Yerkir agency report from the Armenian capital, Yerevan.
  18. ^ "GP wins Tory 'open primary' race". BBC News. August 4, 2009. Retrieved May 22, 2010. 
  19. ^ "Tories test the mood in Totnes". BBC News. August 4, 2009. Retrieved May 22, 2010. 


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