Skip to main content

The Canvass | December 2019

November 25, 2019

Lead Article: 2020 Presidential Primaries

In case you haven’t noticed, presidential primaries are coming up. And while politics captures the media’s attention, process matters too. This month, we investigate how Democrats and Republicans will handle their party’s 2020 presidential primaries, as well as which states are changing the dates of their primary elections.

Democratic Party

In brief: Dems will use far fewer caucuses in 2020 than they did in 2016 and instead will (mostly) rely on primaries.

The 2016 Democratic caucuses were occasionally chaotic—high turnout caused rooms to overflow and prevented people from participating. In Colorado, “caucus organizers made a good effort in anticipation of high turnout,” according to Colorado Representative Chris Kennedy (D), “yet rooms overflowed into the cold night. We had parking issues where seniors and other individuals had to walk long distances to their caucus locations. This ended up being an issue where people were denied access to participation.”

The confusion during the 2016 caucuses raised concerns about caucus participation more generally: Only people who could attend a meeting in person on a Tuesday evening had a voice in the nomination process. In 2018, the Democratic National Committee reacted by taking steps to make the presidential nomination process more inclusive. The DNC's new rules require state parties to encourage participation, which may include providing an absentee or vote-by-mail process, same-day registration or party switching for the Democratic presidential nominating process. They also encouraged parties to use state-run primaries when possible or to establish party-run primaries rather than a traditional Tuesday evening caucus.

Eleven states that held caucuses in 2016 will instead hold primaries in 2020 (see Table 1 for details). This leaves just three states—Iowa, Nevada and Wyoming—using traditional caucuses in 2020. In order to make the caucus process more inclusive, Iowa and Nevada both considered a “virtual caucus” system, which would make the process more accessible to people such as evening shift workers and voters with disabilities who may not be able to access caucus locations or stay for the often hours-long meetings. The DNC’s rules left open the possibility of having some type of virtual caucus, where some voters could voice their choice over their phones or online, but those plans were eventually scrapped due to security concerns. The three states holding caucuses will do so in the traditional manner.

Seven of the states shifting from caucuses to primaries—Colorado, Idaho, Maine, Minnesota, Nebraska, Utah and Washington—will hold a state-run primary, administered by local election officials and paid for by the state.

Four states—Alaska, Hawaii, Kansas and North Dakota—will hold a party-run primary, sometimes called a firehouse primary, that is administered and paid for by the state Democratic party. Parties rarely have the same resources as a state, which means that party-run primaries may have fewer polling locations and shorter polling hours than a state-run primary. There may also be a gap in professionalism—election officials run elections at least once every two years (often more frequently) and have logistical experience that may be absent from a party-run primary.

Table 1: Democratic Presidential Nomination Process Changes




Origin of Change



Party-run primary

Party decision



State-run primary

Proposition 107 in 2016



Party-run primary

Party decision



State-run primary

Party decision (presidential primary already permitted in state law)



Party-run primary

Party decision



State-run primary

SP 523 in 2019



State-run primary

SF 2985 in 2016



State-run primary

Party decision (presidential primary already permitted in state law)

North Dakota


Party-run primary

Party decision



State-run primary

HB 204 in 2017



State-run primary

Party decision (presidential primary already permitted in state law)

How will these changes affect the 2020 presidential primaries? One possible outcome of declining caucuses and increasing primaries may be higher turnout. Even if there is higher participation, as always, it will be hard to parse what caused it: the nomination process itself, or the candidates on the ballot.

Republican Party

In brief: The GOP will hold fewer presidential primaries this year because President Donald Trump is running for a second term.

Since the incumbent president is a Republican, the GOP’s considerations for when, how and even whether to hold a presidential primary are different than the Democrats’. Republican parties in six states have opted to cancel their presidential preference vote altogether: Alaska, Arizona, Kansas, Nevada, South Carolina and Virginia. All delegates in these states are expected to be allocated to the president.

Canceling primaries during an incumbent’s reelection year is not unprecedented. For example, South Carolina Republicans didn’t hold presidential primaries in 1984 or 2004, when Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, respectively, were up for reelection. South Carolina Democrats didn’t hold a presidential primary in 1996 when President Bill Clinton was running for a second term. Arizona Democrats also canceled their 1996 presidential primary, as well as the 2012 primary when President Barack Obama was the incumbent.

State parties often point out that they can save money by not running a primary and that they can put the saved money toward helping down-ballot candidates win. As Nevada GOP Chairman Michael J. McDonald explained in a September news release, “It would be malpractice on my part to waste money on a caucus to come to the inevitable conclusion that President Trump will be getting all our delegates in Charlotte.”

This year is different than the earlier examples, however, because Trump faces some competition for the Republican nomination. The three Republicans challenging the president for the nomination—former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford (who has since dropped out of the race), former Illinois congressman Joe Walsh, and former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld—wrote an opinion piece in September arguing, “It would be a critical mistake to allow the Democratic Party to dominate the national conversation during primary and caucus season.”

In 2016, 13 states held Republican caucuses for their presidential preference vote. Just five states will hold Republican caucuses in 2020—Hawaii, Iowa, Kentucky, North Dakota, and Wyoming—and it is still possible they may decide not to include a presidential preference vote. Three of the states that had held caucuses in 2016 canceled their presidential preference primary (Alaska, Kansas and Nevada), and five—Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Utah, Washington—shifted from caucuses to presidential primaries.

In Maine, Republicans will proceed under a new primary law (SP 523) and hold presidential primaries rather than traditional caucuses. In 2016, Maine voters approved the use of Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) in primary and general elections for governor, state legislature, and federal congressional districts. The legislature expanded the use of RCV in 2019 to include presidential primaries and general elections, though it will not go into effect until after the March 2020 primaries.

Table 2: States Holding Primaries vs. Caucuses, 2016 to 2020


Democrats 2016

Democrats 2020

Republicans 2016

Republicans 2020






Party-run primary





Party caucus





No presidential
preference vote





Legislative Date Changes

In the lead up to a presidential election, states jockey to hold their presidential primaries at the most advantageous time, however that may be defined. Legislatures may change primary dates, or they may leave the decision to political parties.

In the years since the 2016 presidential election, California, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Utah have all moved their presidential primaries earlier in the year to Super Tuesday: March 3, 2020. A total of 14 states—Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont and Virginia—will hold primaries on Super Tuesday.

Several other states made legislative changes to presidential primary dates:

  • Arkansas decided to permanently hold presidential primaries on Super Tuesday; prior to the 2016 election this was only a temporary change.
  • Louisiana moved its presidential primary to April 4. In 2016, the presidential primary was held in March, but that date won't work in 2020 due to quirks in the election calendar.
  • New York changed its presidential primary to April 28, to coincide with five other states in the region, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.
  • Ohio moved its presidential primary to the third Tuesday in March, rather than the second Tuesday.
  • Washington moved the presidential primary from the fourth Tuesday in May to the second Tuesday in March.

For more information and a chronology of when states or political parties decided to hold presidential primaries, see Frontloading HQ’s 2020 Presidential Primary Calendar.

Note: As of publication, it is still possible that the 2020 nomination methods and calendar could change.

From the Chair

This month, we spoke with Representative Chris Kennedy (D) from Colorado, one of four states that holds elections entirely by mail. Kennedy represents Colorado’s 23rd House District, which covers part of Jefferson County. The fourth-most populous county in Colorado with over 500,000 residents, Jeffco borders Denver and the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. Kennedy has held this office since 2016, and he also serves as the assistant majority leader.

How did you get selected to chair the State, Veterans, & Military Affairs committee?

I think the speaker tapped me for this role because I have experience with election administration and campaign finance reform. I was chairman of the Jefferson County Democratic party for two years, spent time in the County Clerk and Recorder’s office and was a staffer at the state Capitol in 2013 when a major elections bill was passed.

What are the major election administration priorities for you and Colorado?

We passed quite a few priority bills last session, so now we are monitoring their implementation through conversations with the Secretary of State and county clerks. We changed the formula for how many vote centers need to be open early and on Election Day, and in the next session, we plan to run a piece of clean-up legislation that will ensure that the money appropriated for counties to set up voter centers gets handled appropriately.

We have also pursued aggressive campaign finance reforms. Colorado already has good policies when it comes to candidate committees, but dark money is harder to regulate. Everyone has the right to know who’s spending money to influence their vote in an election. We have tried to increase disclosure regulations, though it feels like we have pushed as far as we can without running afoul of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United.

We’re also working to be prepared for the census and to ensure ballot access for citizens with language barriers, particularly when it comes to ballot measures.

Colorado changed how it will handle presidential primaries by holding them on Super Tuesday and no longer using the caucus system to pick a party’s nominee. What’s the logic there and how do you feel about it?

I have historically been a supporter of caucuses; there’s something to be said for people who have done the work to be informed and are willing to show up on a cold Tuesday night to influence the election process.

However, what I saw in the 2016 caucuses was a disaster. Caucus organizers made a good effort in anticipation of high turnout, yet rooms overflowed into the cold night. We had parking issues where seniors and other individuals had to walk long distances to their caucus locations. This ended up being an issue where people were denied access to participation. No matter how much I like caucus, we need a system that allows all voters to be involved.

The presidential primary, then, is an opportunity for a much greater number of people (including independents) to weigh in on party nominees.

What are any other election issues facing your state?

The legislature recently passed a bill to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, and there’s an effort underway by citizens to review and possibly repeal that legislation. In 2020, voters will have the opportunity to decide if Colorado stays in the NPVIC. This issue is a pretty big deal.

Of course, we’re also gearing up for the census and preparing for reapportionment and redistricting, which will make use of two new constitutional amendments approving independent commissions for legislative and congressional redistricting.

What values inform your work on election policy issues as they come before your committee?

I believe that everyone should have real access to the franchise of voting. That means we need to take meaningful steps to ensure that the right to vote is not just nominal, but a real right that a person can exercise.

We’re doing a lot to make sure that everyone who has the right to vote in Colorado can. That includes mail ballots, more vote centers and automatic voter updates when people use the DMV or Medicaid system. We want to make voting in Colorado easier than ever before.

A lot of what we do is also pragmatic. What will this cost? Do we have the money at the state or local level? If we pass laws without funding them, how will that affect implementation? We have limited dollars, so we need to find the most effective ways to use them.

In terms of elections, what are you most proud of in Colorado?

What I am most proud of is that there has been a very collaborative process between legislators, the secretary of state, and county clerks to expand voting rights. Ideological issues have been put aside. Despite party affiliation, county clerks take this responsibility very seriously. While we sometimes disagree about how to prioritize issues or how to pay for something, there’s never been disagreement about the fact that making it easier to vote is better.

Anything else you think your peers in other states might find interesting?

There’s a lot to be learned about how election processes work. Any legislator who has not gone to visit their county clerk’s office during election season should!

It’s hard to know how the signature verification process works if you haven’t seen it in person. Once you have, it really eliminates concerns about voter fraud. These systems work very well; there is no fraud that I have seen. Certainly no in-person voter fraud. And I think the mail ballot process is quite solid. I encourage every legislator to go out and see that process up close and in person.


What is going on with ballot order lawsuits?

Groups in ArizonaGeorgia, and Texas have recently filed lawsuits concerning the order in which candidates are listed on a ballot and challenging laws about ballot order. In Florida, a federal district court recently found unconstitutional a law that requires ballot order to be determined by the winning party of the last governor’s race. Although the specifics vary in each state, the lawsuits contend that candidates placed first on the ballot have an advantage over the succeeding candidates due to the “primacy effect.” These lawsuits are a new trend and indicate that ballot order may be a growing issue for election administrators and legislators.

Email us at if you’d like a list of state laws about ballot order.

Worth Noting

Monthly Dose of Cybersecurity

NCSL—Did you know that NCSL maintains a list of all bills related to cybersecurity? Going as far back as 2015, this resource includes a summary and status update for each piece of legislation on cybersecurity, many of which relate to elections.

NCSL—Ransomware attacks against state and local governments continue to multiply, and states face many obstacles to stop such cyber threats.

Arlington, Va.—Cybereason, a cybersecurity technology company, hosted officials from the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and more in Operation Blackout, a tabletop exercise designed to train officials how to react to an Election Day attack. Because preparations for attacks on voting machines and election infrastructure are more common, the participants were tasked with resolving other types of attacks, such as disinformation campaigns, voter suppression tactics, and cell phone service disruptions. 

Washington, D.C.— With unanimous and bipartisan support, the Election Technology Research Act advanced out of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee and to the House floor. This Act would create a Center of Excellence in Election Systems and permit the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the National Science Foundation to research methods for increasing the elections security in collaboration with the Election Assistance Commission. At this time, there is no counterpart bill in the Senate.

2019 Election Results

Voters in Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia voted on regularly scheduled legislative elections and statewide offices on Nov. 5, and voters in Louisiana followed suit on Nov. 16. 


On Election Day 2019, New York City became the largest city in the U.S. to adopt ranked-choice voting, an alternative voting method where voters rank candidates in order of preference. The ballot measure had overwhelming support, and NYC voters will begin using this new system in 2021. 

“Fleeing Voters” Result in Recounts

Final vote counts in Travis County, Texas were delayed due to “fleeing voters,” voters who arrive to vote, check in, but then fail to complete the voting process. In Travis County, voters cast their ballots electronically and then receive a ballot card to confirm their votes were recorded accurately. In order for a person’s vote to be counted, though, the voter had to deposit the ballot card into a ballot box; instead, many voters walked off with their ballot cards in hand. According to state law, a discrepancy of more than four between the ballot cards collected and the voters who checked in requires a recount of all the ballot cards at that location; staffers in 15 of Travis County’s 30 voting locations had to re-scan all of their ballots.

VotingWorks Technology in Central Mississippi

Maurice Turner of the Center for Democracy & Technology writes about VotingWorks, a non-profit startup, and their recent pilot of a new voting system in Choctaw County, Miss. In this process, voters receive a card with a chip that stores the ballot. They then insert the card into the ballot marking device and make selections with a touch screen. The card stores their selections, and then voters insert the card into a printer, which creates a paper ballot. Voters review the paper ballot and, if it accurately displays their votes, deposit it into the ballot box. Although there was some initial confusion for voters, proponents like that the system was designed with security and accessibility in mind.

California’s New Presidential Tax Disclosure Law Ruled Invalid

The California Supreme Court ruled that the state’s new law requiring presidential candidates disclose their tax returns in order to appear on the ballot is invalid. In a unanimous decision, the court found the law in conflict with “the Constitution's specification of an inclusive open presidential primary ballot.” Several states have introduced similar legislation, though California was the first to pass it.

Risk-Limiting Audit Confirms Election Accuracy

Georgia is in the process of replacing its electronic voting machines with machines that produce a paper ballot. Prior to statewide use of the new system in Georgia’s March 24 presidential primary, several municipal locations, including Bartow County near Atlanta, tested it. A legally required postelection risk-limiting audit checked a random sample of ballots and confirmed the system’s accuracy, bolstering confidence in the new system.

Election Officials Retiring

Several top election officials who saw states through the 2016 elections are moving on or retiring, many after long careers. The decision to do so now gives their replacements time to prepare for 2020. Some notable retirements include Gary Poser, Elaine Manlove and Sally Williams, and NCSL is grateful for all of their hard work and contributions to the elections world.


The National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) launched #TrustedInfo2020, an educational initiative designed to “promote election officials as the trusted sources of election information.” This effort intends to propagate accurate election information and limit the proliferation of wrong information, and it is supported by many organizations, including NCSL.

Need a Laugh?

Check out this Election Day recap from The New Yorker.

From the NCSL Elections Team

It’s not too late to join us at the NCSL 2019 Capitol Forum, Dec. 10-12, in Phoenix! The Elections team will host sessions on cybersecurity, geo-enabled elections, campaign finance and more. We hope to see you there!

And as always, we would love to hear from you.

Wendy Underhill and Mandy Zoch

  • Contact NCSL

  • For more information on this topic, use this form to reach NCSL staff.