Primary elections, often abbreviated to primaries, are a process by which voters can indicate their preference for their party's candidate, or a candidate in general, in an upcoming general election, local election, or by-election. Depending on the country and administrative divisions within the country, voters might consist of the general public in what is called an open primary, or solely the members of a political party in what is called a closed primary. In addition to these, there are other variants on primaries (which are discussed below) that are used by many countries holding elections throughout the world.
The origins of primary elections can be traced to the progressive movement in the United States, which aimed to take the power of candidate nomination from party leaders to the people. However, political parties control the method of nomination of candidates for office in the name of the party. Other methods of selecting candidates include caucuses, conventions and nomination meetings.
Where primary elections are organized by parties, not the administration, two types of primaries can generally be distinguished:
In the United States, other types can be differentiated:
The United States is one of the few countries to select candidates through popular vote in a primary election system; most countries rely on party leaders or paid up party members to select candidates, as was previously the case in the U.S. In modern politics, primary elections have been described as a significant vehicle for taking decision-making from political insiders to the voters, though this is disputed by select political science research. The selection of candidates for federal, state, and local general elections takes place in primary elections organized by the public administration for the general voting public to participate in for the purpose of nominating the respective parties' official candidates; state voters start the electoral process for governors and legislators through the primary process, as well as for many local officials from city councilors to county commissioners. The candidate who moves from the primary to be successful in the general election takes public office.
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 blanket or 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 blanket 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 Democratic 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 15 July 2005, the initiative was found unconstitutional by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington. The U.S. Supreme Court heard the Grange's appeal of the case in October 2007. In March 2008, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Grange-sponsored Top 2 primary, citing a lack of compelling evidence to overturn the voter-approved initiative.
In elections using electoral 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 vote for the weaker candidate in order to face an easier general election.
In California, under Proposition 14 (Top Two Candidates Open Primary Act), a voter-approved referendum, in all races except for that for U.S. president and county central committee offices, all candidates running in a primary election regardless of party will appear on a single primary election ballot and voters may vote for any candidate, with the top two vote-getters overall moving on to the general election regardless of party. The effect of this is that it will be possible for two Republicans or two Democrats to compete against each other in a general election if those candidates receive the most primary-election support.
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 their party's 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."
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." In 2024, this date is February 6.
Candidates for U.S. President who seek their party's nomination participate in primary elections run by state governments, or caucuses run by the political parties. Unlike an election where the only participation is casting a ballot, a caucus is a gathering or "meeting of party members designed to select candidates and propose policies". Both primaries and caucuses are used in the presidential nomination process, beginning in January or February and culminating in the late summer political party conventions. Candidates may earn convention delegates from each state primary or caucus. Sitting presidents generally do not face serious competition from their party.
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, still, it is very useful and has 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 tends to have to cater to partisans, who tend to lean to the more extreme ends of the ideological spectrum. In the general election, under the assumptions of the median voter theorem, the candidate must move more towards the center in hopes of capturing a plurality.
In Europe, primaries are not organized by the public administration but by parties themselves. Legislation is mostly silent on primaries. The main reason to this is that the electoral system used to form governments, be it proportional representation or two-round systems, lessens the need for an open primary.
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.
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 organised the first open primary in France in October 2011.
One of the more recent developments is organizing primaries on the European level. European parties that organized primaries so far were the European Green Party (EGP) and the Party of European Socialists (PES).
Primary election were introduced in Italy to establish the centre-left candidates for 2005 regional election. In that occasion the centre-left The Union coalition held open primaries in order to select candidates for President of Apulia and Calabria. A more politically significant primary was held on 16 October 2005, when The Union asked its voters to decide the candidate for Prime Minister in the 2006 general election: 4,300,000 voters showed up and Romano Prodi won hands down. Two years later, on 14 October 2007, voters of the Democratic Party were called to choose the party leader among a list of six, their representatives to the Constituent Assembly and the local leaders. The primary was a success, involving more than 3,500,000 people across Italy, and gave to the winner Walter Veltroni momentum in a difficult period for the government and the centre-left coalition. The centre-right (see House of Freedoms, The People of Freedom, centre-right coalition and Forza Italia) has never held a primary at the national level, but held some experiments at the very local level.
In France, elections follow a two-round system. In the first round, all candidates who have qualified (for example, by obtaining a minimal number of signatures of support from elected officials) are on the ballot. In practice, each candidate usually represents a political party, large or small. In the second round, held two weeks later, the top two candidates run against each other, with the candidates from losing parties usually endorsing one of the two finalists.
The means by which the candidate of an established political party is selected has evolved. Until 2012, none of the six Presidents elected through direct election faced a competitive internal election.
The first primaries in the history of Russia were held in May 2000 in St. Petersburg, the local branches of the parties Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces, who before the Gubernatorial election offered citizens to choose a single candidate from the democratic opposition.
In 2007, before the parliamentary elections, United Russia held primaries in several regions. However, its results were not sufficiently taken into account when nominating candidates from the party. For example, the congress of United Russia included in the regional party list in the Samara region not the winners of the primaries, but those who did not even participate in the primaries.
In the same year 2007, A Just Russia held the primaries to determine the candidate for the Gubernatorial election in Altai Krai. Anyone could vote for them, for which special items were opened. However, in the future, A Just Russia did not begin to pursue the primaries.
In 2011, United Russia, together with the All-Russian People's Front, held primaries for the nomination of candidates for the parlmentary election. This vote was called the "All-People's Primaries", but in fact it was not. Candidates for the primaries were selected by special committees. Not even all party members had the right to vote, but only about 200,000 specially selected electors. In addition, the results of voting on the primaries were in most cases ignored. Of the 80 lists of regional groups of candidates for the State Duma, nominated by the congress of United Russia, only 8 lists coincided with the lists of winners of the primaries. All the same, the event played a role in the elimination of candidates: there were cases when the current deputies of the State Duma, having seen that they did not enjoy the support of electors, withdrew their candidacies.
In the future, United Russia has sometimes resorted to an "open" model of primaries, which allows voting to all interested voters. In 2014, in the primaries of the "United Russia" before the elections to the Moscow City Duma, any Muscovite could vote, and not only registered electors.
In 2016, the primaries for the selection of candidates for parliamentary elections were held by four parties: United Russia, People's Freedom Party, the Party of Growth and the Green Alliance. The most massive were the 22 May 2016 primaries of the United Russia, which could vote for every citizen who has an active electoral right. However, the primaries, as well as earlier, were not binding for the leadership of United Russia: a number of winners of the primaries were withdrawn by the leadership without any explanation of reasons, and in 18 single-seat constituencies the party did not nominate any candidates. A striking example was the Nizhny Tagil constituency, where the candidate from the United Russia was approved candidate, who took the 4th place in the primaries. Finally, a number of candidates were included in the party list on the proposal of the party leader Dmitry Medvedev from among those who did not even participate in the primaries.
In 2017, the Party of Growth holds the primaries for the nomination of candidates for the presidential election. These are the first presidential primaries in the history of Russia. However, voting for candidates will take place via the Internet within three months, and, according to the spokesman of the party, the results of the primaries will not be mandatory for the nomination of the candidate and the party convention may nominate another candidate who does not even participate in the primaries, or even not nominate candidates and support President Vladimir Putin, if he decides to be re-elected.
For the 2010 general election, the Conservative Party used open primaries to select two candidates for Member of Parliament. Further open primaries were used to select some Conservative candidates for the 2015 general election, and there are hopes other parties may nominate future candidates in this way.
A two-round primary election was held in Budapest, Hungary in 2019 between four opposition parties, to select a single candidate to the 2019 Budapest mayoral election. A smaller primary was also held in the district of Ferencváros.
Indeed, the Lisbon treaty, which entered into force in December 2009, lays down that the outcome of elections to the European Parliament must be taken into account in selecting the President of the Commission; the Commission is in some respects the executive branch of the EU and so its president can be regarded as the EU prime minister. 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.
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 Foreign Affairs. 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.
As in Europe, nomination meetings and leadership elections (somewhat similar to primary elections) in Canada are not organized by the public administration but by parties themselves. Political parties participate in federal elections to the House of Commons, in legislative elections in all ten provinces, and in Yukon. (The legislatures and elections in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut are non-partisan.)
Typically, in the months before an anticipated general election, local riding associations of political parties in each electoral district will schedule and announce a Nomination Meeting (similar to a nominating caucus in the United States). Would-be candidates will then file nomination papers with the association, and usually will devote time to solicit existing party members, and to sign up new party members who will also support them at the nomination meeting. At the meeting, typically each candidate will speak, and then members in attendance will vote. The electoral system most often used is an exhaustive ballot system; if no candidate has over 50% of the votes, the candidate with the lowest number of votes will be dropped and another ballot will be held. Also, other candidates who recognize that they will probably not win may withdraw between ballots, and may "throw their support" to (encourage their own supporters to vote for) another candidate. After the nomination meeting, the candidate and the association will obtain approval from party headquarters, and file the candidate's official nomination papers and necessary fees and deposits with Elections Canada or the provincial/territorial election commissions as appropriate.
At times, party headquarters may overturn an association's chosen candidate; for example, if any scandalous information about the candidate comes to light after the nomination. A party headquarters may also "parachute" a prominent candidate into an easy-to-win riding, removing the need to have a nomination meeting. These situations only come up infrequently, as they tend to cause disillusionment among a party's supporters.
Canadian political parties also organize their own elections of party leaders. Not only will the party leader run for a seat in their own chosen riding, they will also become Prime Minister (in a federal election) or Premier (in a province or territory) should their party win the most seats. Thus, a leadership election is also considered to be one for the party's de facto candidate for Prime Minister or Premier. If the party wins the second-most seats, the party leader will become Leader of the Official Opposition; if the party comes third or lower, the leader will still be recognized as the leader of their party, and will be responsible for co-ordinating the activities and affairs of their party's caucus in the legislature.
In the past, Canadian political parties chose party leaders through an American-style delegated leadership convention. Local riding associations would choose delegates, usually in a manner similar to how they would choose a candidate for election. These delegates typically said explicitly which leadership candidate they would support. Those delegates, as well as other delegates (e.g. sitting party members of Parliament or the legislature, or delegates from party-affiliated organizations such as labor unions in the case of the New Democratic Party), would then vote, again using the exhaustive ballot method, until a leader was chosen. Some provincial political parties retain the delegated convention format.
Lately, Canada's major political parties have moved to a "one member, one vote" system for their federal leadership elections. A leadership convention is still scheduled, but all party members have a chance to vote for the new leader. Typically, members may vote either in person at the convention, online, or through a mail-in ballot.
Instant-runoff voting (IRV) is used in whole or in part to elect the leaders of the three largest federal political parties in Canada: the Liberal Party of Canada, the Conservative Party of Canada, and the New Democratic Party, albeit the New Democratic Party uses a mixture of IRV and exhaustive voting, allowing each member to choose one format or the other for their vote (as was used in their 2017 leadership election). In 2013, members of the Liberal Party of Canada elected Justin Trudeau as party leader through IRV in a national leadership election. The Conservative Party used IRV (where each of the party's 338 riding associations are weighted equally, regardless of how many members voted in each riding) to elect Erin O'Toole as party leader in 2020, and Stephen Harper in 2004.