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Politics
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Confused About Different Primaries? Here's a Primer

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Now that the State Board of Elections has finalized the ballot for North Carolina’s March 15 primary election, some have commented that voters will face a ‘closed’ primary ballot.

In the parlance of primary elections and political science research, North Carolina uses one of several different forms of primary systems that states have for their election processes.

The most restrictive system is a ‘closed’ primary, where only registered voters of that specific party are allowed to participate in the primary election.

By only allowing voters who are registered with the party to participate, the thinking is that a party can contain who participates in their nomination process, thus having only committed voters select their party’s nominees.

North Carolina uses the semi-closed primary system. In this system, only registered members of the party or unaffiliated registered voters can participate in the primary nomination balloting. By statute and party rules, unaffiliated voters can pick one of the party ballots to vote for candidates vying for that party’s nomination.

With the move from May to March this year, there isn’t a good comparison to evaluate what this year’s primary electorate will be like, but based on the past two presidential primaries (2008 and 2012) in North Carolina, we can guess that partisan registered voters will be the biggest players on both sides. Unaffiliated voters will likely be less than 20 percent of the electorate in either party’s primary.

In a semi-open primary system, like in neighboring South Carolina, a voter doesn’t register by party, but publicly declares which party’s ballot they want to vote in for a primary election.

In an open primary system, the voter is handed a ballot with all parties listed on the ballot, but they then choose in the privacy of the voting booth which party they want to cast their vote.

One speculation is that in open primaries, crossover voting, or ‘raiding’, can be done by members of the opposition party to attempt to nominate the worst candidate for the general election, although some research has found “no evidence that the restrictiveness of primary participation rules is systematically associated with candidate ideology.”

The final type of primary system is what can be described as a ‘blanket’ primary, in which the voter is free to cast votes for any party’s primary in any contest. A voter can cast a vote in the primary for president for party A, then vote in party B’s primary for a U.S. Senate candidate, then flip back to party A to cast a primary vote for governor, and so forth.

As a variation on the ‘blanket’ primary, four states, including California, use a system for their statewide contests (not presidential) that is often referred to as the “top-two” system, where voters pick candidates, regardless of their party affiliation, for various offices. The top two are the candidates in the general election, no matter if it’s two Democrats or two Republicans running against one another.

Of course, no matter what system is used within a state, the parties may decide to use different forms of primaries, with one party picking a closed primary system while the other party uses an open primary.

As we get closer to the caucuses (another very different form of nomination contest that we will see in Iowa) and the primaries for the presidential and other offices, the system that each state uses for their parties’ nomination will be important to watch and understand.

UPDATE: This includes a change in mention of the states using the "top-two" system, to provide a clearer example.