Here's how primary elections work, and how to vote

Spread The Vote is a non-profit that works to help educate and empower voters on the voting and political process. Boing Boing invited the group to help everyone understand how primary elections work, and how you can participate in them if you are an eligible U.S. voter. Sign up for their state-specific voter education packages, which are really an amazing educational resource. —Xeni Jardin


When most voters think of election day, they likely imagine a general election where they vote to determine which candidate on the ballot will win the position of elected office. However, voters may be less familiar with primary elections. This may explain, in part, why voter turnout is so different for general and primary elections. That's where Spread The Vote comes in. We want every eligible voter to understand and participate in primary elections because they are such an important element of our democracy.


1. Turnout in primaries is notoriously low: in the 2016 presidential race, just over 28% of eligible voters voted in a Republican and Democratic presidential primary election.

This number is shocking compared to the nearly 60% of Americans who were eligible to vote that turned out for the general election. Even though general elections get a lot of attention, primary elections are just as important and are a significant opportunity to make your voice heard.

2. Primary elections, or primaries, are elections where voters choose who will be on the ballot for each specific office in the general election.

Primary elections are usually held months before a general election. The exact date of each primary often varies by state and depends on the type of primary election being held. To find out when the next primary election is in your city, please contact your local election office.

3. Primary elections are either partisan or non-partisan.

In a partisan primary, voters choose which candidate from a political party they would like to represent that political party in the general election.

In a nonpartisan primary, voters choose from all of the candidates running for a position, regardless of their political party. Generally, the candidates who receive the most votes go on to the general election. It will depend from county to county which primary races are partisan and which are non-partisan. Sometimes, there are both partisan and nonpartisan races on the same primary ballot but in some states, there are separate nonpartisan ballots. Check with your local elections office to learn more.

4. The structure of primary elections differ from state to state and determines who can vote in them.

Primaries can be open, closed, or a combination of the two. In open primary elections, any registered voter can select a political party when they check in to vote and select from candidates in that political party. In closed primary elections, only voters who are registered with a political party can vote for that political party's candidates.

Some states choose to take a mixed approach to primary elections. For example, a state may set different rules for voters who are registered with a political party than for voters who are not. Alternatively, some states may allow methods other than a state-run primary for selecting general election candidates–for example, letting political parties decide for themselves how to run their candidate nomination process. Contact your political party in your state to learn more about how and when these methods are used.

5. Primary elections are the voter's chance to choose who they want to see representing their preferred party in the general election.

Sometimes, in general elections, voters complain about having to choose between two candidates who they are not excited about. In primaries, voters often have more than two choices so they can decide who would best represent their positions, vision, and values and support a candidate they believe in.

6. Even if a voter does not feel connected to a political party, voting in a nonpartisan primary can empower voters to make their voice heard in their community.

Often, non-partisan races include positions that are especially important at the local level, like school board members and judges. Decisions made in these local roles have a direct effect on voters' everyday lives.

Primary elections are good for democracy! [citation]

Through the primary election process, political parties can better understand what voters believe in and want from their representatives in government. As more people take part in primary elections, parties compete, reform, and expand to include more voters in their base. This competition among parties ultimately means more people's views are taken into account and leads to government being more representative of the people over time.

Spread The Vote is here to help educate and empower voters on the voting and political process. If you want to learn more about Voter Ed, you can sign up to receive our monthly state-specific voter education packages.