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Open, Closed, Hybrid? State Primary Elections Come in Assorted Flavors

Although primaries are the most common way for parties to nominate candidates, states vary in how those elections are conducted.

By Adam Kuckuk  |  September 11, 2023

Over the course of history, political parties have nominated their candidates through party meetings, town halls, conventions and, most recently, primaries.

“Primaries are just the latest evolution in a long history of party nomination processes that have been increasingly more inclusive of people,” says  Ben Williams, program principal in NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program.

Although primaries are the most common way parties nominate candidates today, states vary in how those elections are conducted.

“Primaries are just the latest evolution in a long history of party nomination processes that have been increasingly more inclusive of people.”

—Ben Williams, NCSL

“Tennessee has taken the approach that you must be a member of that party to select a nominee,”  Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett, the state’s chief election official, told the “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Primaries” session at the NCSL Legislative Summit in Indianapolis.  

Any Tennessee voter may participate in either party’s primary as long as he or she is a “bona fide member” of the party. Because Tennessee lacks formal party registration, state law allows anyone present at a polling place to challenge party affiliation, Hargett says, adding that challenges rarely happen. These factors make Tennessee an open primary state with some characteristics of a closed primary.

If a voter whose credentials are challenged signs an oath attesting to party membership, the decision then goes to a three-judge panel that looks at the person’s primary voting history. If there is unanimous consent by the panel that the voter is not a party member, the voter can’t vote in that party’s election and can be charged with a misdemeanor.

Who’s That Guy?

Why would the Tennessee General Assembly create criminal penalties? “Imagine that the University of Alabama and Tennessee are playing, and Alabama’s offense huddles up,” Hargett says. “All of a sudden, a guy shows up in an orange uniform and gets in the huddle and says, ‘Hey, I just want to be part of the play.’ Nobody would allow the somebody on the other team to go join up and help pick what play is going to be called.”

In contrast to Tennessee, Wyoming gives voters the chance to declare their party affiliation when they register to vote. Affiliation used to be changeable on election day, but a recent enactment moved the deadline for registration changes to before the beginning of the candidate filing period for primaries, which is often months before the election.

Noting that Wyoming is “probably the reddest state there is,” state Sen. Cale Case (R) says he might like to unroll the changes to allow a wider variety of views to be represented in the primary elections, which serve as the de facto deciding elections in the heavily Republican state.

Primary Problem?

Beth Hladick, director of research at Unite America, says recent political polarization and the way districts are drawn puts significant power in primary voters’ hands. “In 2022, just 8% of Americans effectively elected 83% of Congress in partisan primaries,” she says.

Unite America endorses nonpartisan primaries, in which all candidates are on the same ballot and all voters can participate, as a tool to increase voter participation and negate the effects of polarization. Alaska, California and Washington have adopted such a system.

To learn more about the differences in states’ primaries, the outcomes and policy options, see NCSL’s new State Primaries Toolkit.

Adam Kuckuk is a policy analyst in NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program.

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