A primary election is one in which a political party selects a candidate for a later election by all registered voters in that jurisdiction (nominating primary). Primaries are sometimes open only to registered members of that party, and sometimes open to all voters. In open primaries, voters must typically choose only one primary to participate in that election cycle. Louisiana, U.S.A. is an exception. Until 2004 in the state of Washington, U.S.A., this was also not the case, and voters were able to vote in all parties' primaries on the same ballot, though not for more than one candidate per office.
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 nonpartisan.) Generally twice as many candidate 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.
Because many Washingtonians were disappointed over the loss of the blanket primary, which the Washington State Grange helped institute in 1935, the Grange filed Initiative 872 in 2004 to establish a qualifying primary for partisan races, thereby allowing voters to once again cross party lines in the primary election. Supporters claimed it would bring back voter choice; opponents said it would exclude third parties and independents from general election ballots, would 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.
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.
In the United States, the small state of New Hampshire draws national attention every four years because it has the first U.S. presidential primary. (In 2004, the Washington, DC primary had the distinction of being the first in the nation; however, it was only binding for the Green Party. The Democratic Party's vote in the primary was non-binding, and only 4 of the 9 Democratic candidates were listed on ballots.)
Types of primaries
- Open. Voters may vote in primaries of a party of their choice, the choice to be made at the voting booth.
- Closed. Voters may only vote in a primary if they are registered members of that party.
- Semi-open. Voters registered with a party may only vote in the primary of their party. Independents may choose which primary to vote in at the voting booth.
- Blanket primary - Also called a "jungle primary". Allows voters to vote in either primary, switching party primaries with each office (Ex. Republican Presidential primary, Democratic Gubernatorial Primary, Republican Congressional Primary).
- Run-off. If no candidate receives a majority (50%) the top two candidates may face-off in a run-off election.
- Approval-based primary election methods — methods which use an approval-style "choose-many" ballot, but also advance more than one candidate to the general election.
Partisan primary elections tend to result in a center squeeze effect. A candidate liked by all voters can theoretically be eliminated from contention because more partisan voters prefer candidates closer to their views, to the detriment of more centrist nonpartisan voters who don't vote in primaries. This is a major reason why the "unified primary" has started finding support. Centrist candidates have a better chance of avoiding elimination under unified primaries than other methods, since partisans could support both their favorite candidates and the compromise candidates, rather than only choosing one (as required in first-past-the-post and typical blanket primaries).
Here are a few places where the pros and cons of primary elections are discussed: