The NCSL Blog


By Wendy Underhill

Tuesday is a big deal if you’re a Democratic presidential contender. Voters in 14 states will weigh in on their party’s nominee. Check out states and dates at NCSL’s State Primary Dates 2020 page; presidential primary information is on the right.

votersYou know who else Tuesday is a big deal for? Anyone vying for a legislative seat in California, North Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas or Texas. Those state primaries—the first four in the nation—will be held in conjunction with their presidential primaries.

Four of these five states make provisions for a primary runoff as well. Primary runoffs have long been a factor in Southern states. Using one helps winnow a long list of primary candidates to just two, who then face off in the runoff. An alternative, “instant runoff voting,” more commonly known as ranked-choice voting, allows voters to express their first, second and more choices all with one ballot and one trip to the polling place.

In California, legislative primaries will be held using the “top two” method, where all candidates run on the same ticket, and the top two vote-getters (regardless of party) go on to the general election. California’s presidential primaries, such as Tuesday’s, are different though. A single-party primary ballot is automatically sent to members of that party. Unaffiliated voters may choose to vote in the Democratic or Libertarian primaries, but not in the Republican or Green parties.

In the states with only presidential preference primaries tomorrow, legislators determined how they’ll work, and each is a little different.

In Colorado, 17-year-olds who will be 18 by the general election will be able to vote in the presidential primary for the first time. Ditto for unaffiliated voters, who were mailed both Democratic and Republican ballots and must return only one.

Last year, Maine’s legislature approved ranked-choice for presidential preference primaries—but it won’t be used until 2024. Maine remains the only state to use RCV above the local level. Tomorrow’s contest will use a traditional “choose just one” ballot.

Four parties are holding presidential primary elections in Massachusetts: Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians and the Green Rainbow party. Mostly, minor parties select their presidential candidates through state and national conventions, but in a few states (including California and North Carolina, as well as Massachusetts) they will hold primaries just like the Ds and the Rs.

Minnesota will use a state-run primary, not a caucus, to select its presidential nominees for the first time in decades. While the votes themselves are never made public, records of which ballot—D or R—the voter chooses will be provided to the political parties. This has raised privacy concerns with some people, including nonpartisan legislative staffers.

In Utah, every registered voter has been mailed a ballot. Utah is the most recent state to go “all mail,” although in-person voting is available as well.

Oklahoma’s election tomorrow will be as close to “average” as any state’s could get. There’s early voting (three days, ending last Saturday); more candidates than in most states, including five Republicans and 14 Democrats; and voters will need to show an ID (although provisions are made for non-photo options) to get their ballot.

Tennessee permits early in-person voting for presidential preference primaries, but on a different schedule than for other elections—it ended Feb. 25.

In Virginia, any registered voter can choose to vote in any party’s primary, and their choice is not recorded. This year, the state Republican party chose not to hold a presidential preference primary—they know who they want—so it’s possible some Republican voters may get in on the action on the Democrats’ side.

Vermont’s primaries are open to all voters—and anyone who is a U.S. citizen, resides in Vermont and hasn’t registered yet, can do so on Election Day. This little state is mighty proud of its elections; read how the Vermont secretary of state, Jim Condos, addresses voters as they prepare. 

Wendy Underhill is the director of NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.