A primary election is an election that narrows the field of candidates before a general election for office. Primary elections are one means by which a political party or a political alliance nominates candidates for an upcoming general election or by-election.
- United States
- Primaries in the United States
- Non partisan
- Presidential primaries
- Primary classifications
- Primaries in Europe
- United Kingdom
- Socialist parties
- European Union
- Primaries in Canada
- Local candidates
- Party leaders
- Primaries worldwide
Primaries are common in the United States, where their origins are traced to the progressive movement to take the power of candidate nomination from party leaders to the people.
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:
Primaries in the United States
The United States is one of few countries to select candidates through popular vote in a primary election system; most countries rely on party leaders to vote 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 July 15, 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 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. 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.
As a result of a federal court decision in Idaho, the 2011 Idaho Legislature passed House Bill 351 implementing a closed primary system.
Oregon was the first American state in which a binding primary election was conducted entirely via the internet. The election was held by the Independent Party of Oregon in July, 2010.
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 2020, this date is February 4.
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.
Primaries in Europe
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 voting method 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).
In Italy, the first open primaries took place on 16 October 2005. It led to the designation of Romano Prodi as leader of the Olive Tree coalition, which gathered several center and left-wing parties, for the legislative elections of 9 and 10 April 2006. Several parties of the coalition decided to form a single major Centre-left party:The Democratic Party, which uses the primary elections to choose its candidate to the premiership.
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.
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.
In autumn 2011, here was how the twenty-nine socialist, social-democratic, and labour parties member of the Party of European Socialists (PES) had designated their party leader.
The case of UK's Labour party leadership election is specific, as three electoral colleges, each accounting for one third of the votes, participate in this primary election: Labour members of Parliament and of the European Parliament, party members and members of affiliated organisations such as trade unions.
With a view to the European elections, many European political parties consider organising a presidential primary.
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.
Primaries in Canada
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 voting 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. 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 the votes of delegates to a 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.
Lately, Canada's major political parties have moved to "one member, one vote" systems 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 as a delegate to the convention, online as they watch ballot-by-ballot results on the Internet or on television, or through a mail-in preferential ballot (handled by an "instant runoff" method). This method was used in the 2012 NDP leadership convention which chose Tom Mulcair as federal party leader. When the Liberal Party chose Justin Trudeau as party leader in its leadership convention in 2013, they used a similar process, but only used online preferential voting for members not present at the convention and did not use mail-in ballots. As well, they scaled all members' votes such that each of the 308 riding associations' votes would be equal, notwithstanding how many or how few members voted in each riding.