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How the Primary Election Works

written by: wahmbrenda • edited by: Noreen Gunnell • updated: 6/6/2012

The primary elections are an important part of the electoral process in the United States. Through the primary election, citizens are able to vote for who they would like to represent their party in the general election.

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    primary elections 

    A preliminary election is held in order to determine which candidate will receive the party’s nomination to represent them in the general election. The candidate that wins will then run in the general election against the candidate that is nominated by the other party.

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    The History Behind The Primary Elections

    Originally the main way of selecting candidates was via caucuses (members and supporters of a political party would meet). However, in the twentieth century there was a movement made to give more power to citizens and thus allow them to select their party’s candidate. This was the first time that registered voters were actually permitted to choose the candidate by voting with a secret ballot (the same way as the general election).

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    Different Types

    There are two main types of primaries:

    • Open primaries allow registered voters to vote in either party’s primary, regardless of their affiliation.
    • Closed primaries only permit registered voters to vote for a candidate within the party that they are registered for. So, if a person is registered as a Democrat, they can only vote in the Democratic primary.

    Each state determines which type of primary it will use. However, one thing is in common amongst all states: This type of an election is held in order to select which candidates will be allowed to run for public office.

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    When are they Held?

    It is up to each state to also decide when and if it will hold a primary election. Some states will hold them early in the process. Regardless, the voting process will be very similar to that of a general election. Registered voters will use a secret ballot and vote at their designated polling place to determine who will represent them in the upcoming general election.

    There are an unlimited number of party members who are able to run for office here but only the winning candidate will represent the party in the general election. As such, it is quite possible for the winner to receive less than 50% of the vote if enough people are running. If this happens, some states, especially those in the south, will then hold a run-off primary in which the two candidates that have the highest number of votes will face off against one another.

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    How The Outcome Is Determined

    There is a difference in how each party determines the outcome of the delegates though. The Republican Party will allow the states to decide for themselves whether caucus participants or the number of primary votes received will determine what candidate will be awarded delegates. On the other hand, the Democratic Party uses a proportional method. Herein the number of primary votes that are received represents the percentage of delegates that are awarded to each of the candidates. Either way, the candidate will then become the party’s nominee.

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    The Convention

    This national convention is where a group of delegates from each state can vote for their candidate. Each of these delegates is chosen at the state level before the convention. At the end of the convention each party formally announces who their candidate is going to be. Now it is time or the general election to begin.

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    References

    • https://nessie.uihr.uillinois.edu/cf/leave/index.cfm?Item_id=4055
    • https://vhd.overseasvotefoundation.org/unified/index.php?_m=knowledgebase&group=vote411&_a=viewarticle&kbarticleid=1674&nav=0,49
    • http://www.votesmart.org/election_president_how_primary_works.php

    Picture from Commons.Wikimedia.org

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