Elections

Here’s All The Facts You Never Knew You Wanted About Primary Elections

It’s about more than party lines.

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If you’re just beginning to find your footing within the American political system, all the different rules that come along with elections can be especially confusing. That’s why Elite Daily is here to clear things up, and talk about one of the most important election types you should be paying attention to as a voter: primary elections.

Primary season for the 2022 midterm elections is in full swing, so Elite Daily spoke to an expert about what you *really* need to know when it comes to primary elections, and how you can stay ahead of the game to get your ballot in the box. Andrea Benjamin, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the Clara Luper Department of African and African American Studies at the University of Oklahoma who specializes in local elections and voting behavior, as well as race and politics. Here’s what she had to say about knowing what’s going on in primary elections.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

So, what exactly are primary elections, and why are they so important?

AB: Primary elections are typically an opportunity for the political parties to decide who will represent them in the general election. While we mostly think about Democratic and Republican primaries, any party — Independent, Green Party, Libertarian — can have primaries as well. If a primary is “open,” that means anyone, from any party, can participate in that election. If a primary is “closed,” that means only registered members of the party holding the election can participate. Then there are “semi-closed” primaries, where a party holding a primary might let an Independent voter participate. For instance, Republicans in Oklahoma have a closed primary. Only Republicans can participate in their process. Meanwhile, Democrats in Oklahoma have semi-closed primaries, where Independent voters are allowed to participate.

Who’s in charge of running primary elections?

AB: On the state level, like for gubernatorial elections, the party itself is in charge of deciding the logistics — like which candidate campaigns when, when the primaries’ dates are, and more. On the national level, like for presidential elections, it's the national party that's putting everything together, like having Iowa and New Hampshire’s primaries first, and California’s last, and so on. That's why sometimes even within a state, different parties may hold their presidential primary elections on different days.

How do primaries fit into the larger election process?

AB: The primary elections are very important in the larger election process. Hypothetically, someone could be the best candidate, but if they can’t make it past the primary elections, they can’t compete in the general election.

This goes back to the question about partisanship: In general elections, most people vote along party lines. That’s why it’s so important for more people to participate in primaries — if only a few voters have expressed support for a candidate, that's now the only person that's gonna show up on everyone's ballot. Let’s say, only 20% of the eligible voters participate in a given primary. That's not a lot of people determining who's going to be on the general election ballot.

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What’s voter participation like in primaries?

AB: My sense is that in most states, turnout in the primaries is lower than in the general election. According to the U.S. Election Project, in 2020 turnout for the general election was around 69%, while turnout for state primaries ranged from 5.5% to about 48%.

One of the biggest barriers preventing voters from participating in primary elections is timing — especially with the presidential election. Voting needs to be scheduled on one day. I teach this stuff, and even I get confused about the dates. Election dates could be more consistent to help people plan ahead.

Another barrier is related to the information available to voters. People might not even know there’s a primary election going on. It’s not the same as a presidential election. Primary elections just aren’t on peoples’ radar. We need to create spaces where people can get the information they need to cast their vote. Of course, it's hard because that varies by state. Some states send you nonpartisan information, while other states say, “You're on your own, good luck, do your own research.” There are certain things that need to be standardized.

How do primaries play into the United States’ two-party system?

AB: The highly partisan environment surrounding primary elections creates an incentive for candidates to adhere to party values, even for issues on which voters disagree with the party. Another factor is district lines are not drawn to be competitive, because partisan powers are trying to produce Democratic or Republican results. There are no independent districts. If you’re in charge, guess what? You draw the lines to stay in charge.

What are some of the biggest issues with primary elections in the United States?

AB: In the current system, the primaries kick off in just two states: Iowa and New Hampshire. Let's say you're chilling in California. Your primary is later, but by the time you even get a chance to vote, the candidate you like isn’t even running anymore, because they didn’t do well in Iowa and New Hampshire. It's not fair that just because your state got shuffled around to be last in this cycle, now your favorite candidate has decided to drop out because those early state results suggest they won’t win. New Hampshire and Iowa are not the most populous states, and that means only a small percentage of Americans are determining who's on the general election ballot. That feels a little bit unfair.

What kind of misconceptions do people have about primary elections?

AB: The biggest conception people have, especially new voters, is that these elections aren’t important because they don’t actually elect a candidate to office. They often think, “Oh, I don't need to do that. This isn't really the election.” But it is the election that determines which candidate is going to be on the ballot. So, primary elections are indeed very important.

What should people be thinking about when it comes to voting in primary elections?

AB: Voters should try to figure out where candidates stand on issues important to them, particularly for a statewide election. Ask questions like, “What does that person plan to do for my House district? What do they plan to do for my state Senate district?” At the state and local levels, voters may even be able to meet candidates, and candidates may also host town hall events, where voters can engage directly.

It’s important to figure out, “Who do I think will do the best job representing me, should they win the actual election?” Because the more public support a candidate gets, the more funds they receive, and the candidate with the most funds tends to win.

How do people register to vote in primary elections?

AB: Voter registration procedures aren’t even nationally standardized, so that depends on where you live. To me, the best advice is to research how to register to vote in your state. Depending on where you live, if you’re already registered and you’re in a state that does mail-in voting, your ballot will just show up. In fact, you don't have to do anything. It'll just show up in your mailbox, you can fill it out, and return it. Other states require you to vote in person on Election Day, or to request an alternative way to vote, like voting by mail. Every state has its own process, and some are a lot more unnecessarily complicated than others.

What could more voter participation in primary elections mean for the country?

AB: Ideally, it would mean the very best candidates are the ones that make it to the general election. Please consider participating in your primaries so we have input from a lot more voters.

If you do research and you see a candidate you think will do a good job, you could volunteer to work for their campaign. You could also help out your local election board as a poll worker, because they may need volunteers to ensure the elections run smoothly. You may even be able to volunteer at an organization to get people registered to vote. There are a ton of ways to get involved.