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June Is the Heart of Primary Season

By Wendy Underhill  |  May 27, 2022

June’s 17 primaries will provide lots more data on which wings of our major parties are in the ascendance, as judged by the outcomes of congressional and gubernatorial races.

How might that information pertain to state legislative races? Hard to say, but it seems likely that the coattails of both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump will be in play.

Of the 6,240 legislative seats up for election in November—84% of the total 7,386—June’s primaries will select major-party candidates for 1,619 of them, or 26%. Because this is the first post-redistricting year, more seats are open than usual.

May Still Making News

In May’s primaries, voters in 12 states determined which major-party candidates will face off in November. The contests gave the nation indications of how Trump’s endorsement impacts GOP voters and how much sway the progressive wing of the Democratic Party has—but not nearly enough information to make sweeping statements yet.

May’s primaries did another thing: They showcased the wide variety of ways states conduct primaries.

For instance, in Pennsylvania, the Republican Senate race between David McCormick and Trump-backed Mehmet Oz is headed to a recount, which state law says happens automatically if the margin is under 0.5%. Oz is ahead by 900 votes, with some provisional and overseas ballots yet to be counted. Recounts rarely change outcomes, according to an analysis from FairVote, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for electoral reform. Worth noting: In states with automatic recounts, the trigger can be as high as 1% or as low as 0.1%.

Texas’ March 1 primary, the first in the nation, provides for a runoff for races in which no candidate receives over 50% of the vote. In the runoff, the top two contenders face off, with the top vote-getter winning—even if it is by just one vote. The May 24 race to determine who would be the Democratic candidate in November for the 28th Congressional District seat was that runoff. Incumbent Henry Cuellar has declared victory with a lead of 177 votes over his challenger, the progressive Jessica Cisneros, who had not conceded as of May 26. Hundreds of mail-in and provisional ballots had yet to be counted.

A Varied Process

What’s certain is that June’s primaries will shine light on states’ primary systems, something that is entirely within the purview of state lawmakers. “Closed” primaries are on one end of the continuum, where only party members have a vote; Nevada (June 14) and New York (June 28) use that system. At the other end, open primaries allow voters to choose which party’s ballot to vote, but the decision is private and does not register the voter with that party. Mississippi, South Carolina, Montana, Virginia and North Dakota fit that category.

And there are variations in between. “Partially closed” primaries are in use in South Dakota (June 7, with a possible runoff on Aug. 16) and Utah (June 28). “Partially open” primaries take place in Iowa (June 7) and Illinois (June 28).

In Colorado, Maine, New Jersey and New Mexico, major party primaries are open to unaffiliated voters but not to members of the opposite party. Colorado’s unaffiliated voters receive both ballots with lots of instructions to return only one.

California (June 7) doesn’t fit into any of the above categories. The Golden State uses a “top two” primary, in which all candidates run on one ballot, and the top two vote-getters advance to the general primary. This system could well lead to two Democrats on the general election ballot in coastal California races, or two Republicans facing each other in November in the rest of the state.

And then there’s New York, where redistricting threw a curveball. The Empire State’s primary is scheduled for June 28, but because the redistricting plan for the state Senate was not finalized in time, the state will run two primaries: one at the usual time for most offices, including those in the state Assembly, and a second one on Aug. 23 for state Senate.

Wendy Underhill directs NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program.

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