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Congressional and Presidential Primaries: Open, Closed, Semi-Closed, and "Top Two"

Overview:

This page details information about the main categories of congressional primaries in the United State ( open, closed, semi-closed, and "top two") and puts each state into one of these categories. We also include information regarding the type of presidential primary or caucus held in each state.

This information is as up-to-date as possible as of May 2012. However, states and parties regularly make changes to their primary or caucus rules. If any of the information below has changed, please email us at info [at] fairvote.org and we will review our information and update it, if warranted.

Open primary:

In an open primary, voters of any affiliation may vote in the primaries of any party they choose. They cannot vote in more than one party's primary, although that prohibition can be difficult to enforce in the event a party has a runoff election. In many open primary states voters do not indicate partisan affiliation when they register to vote.

One area of contention in open primaries is "crossover" voting, which may change who wins a party nomination. It most often involves voters registered with Party B (either in an area dominated by Party A or in a year when Party B's nominee is a foregone conclusion) voting in the primary for the Party A candidate whose views are closer  their own. Occasionally, there also are concerns about sabotage, or "party crashing," which involves partisans strategically voting for a weaker candidate in another party's primary in the hope that the opposition party will nominate a candidate who is easier to defeat in the general election.

Closed primary:

In a closed primary, only voters registered with a given party can vote in that party's primary. Parties may have the option to invite unaffiliated voters to participate, but such independent voters usually are left out of the primary unless they decide to give up their independent status.

Closed primaries preserve a party's freedom of association, but critics claim that closed primaries can exacerbate the radicalization that often occurs at the primary stage, when candidates must cater to their party's "base" rather than the political center.

In a few states, independent voters may register with a party on Election Day. However, they must remain registered with that party until they change their affiliation again.  A handful of states even allow voters registered with one party to switch their registration at the polls to vote in another party's primary. In these rare instances, a closed primary can more closely resemble open or semi-closed primaries than the closed primaries of other states.

Semi-closed primary:

In a semi-closed primary, unaffiliated voters may choose which party primary to vote in, while voters registered with a party may only vote in that party's primary. Representing a middle ground between the exclusion of independent voters in a closed primary and the free-for-all of open primaries, the semi-closed, primary eliminates concerns about voters registered  in other parties from "raiding" another party's nominating contest.

People who align with a given party may theoretically still vote in another party's primary if they are registered as independent. The potential for such tactical party registration is also present in the strictest of closed primaries.

Top two primary:

The top two primary system puts all candidates, regardless of party affiliation, on the same ballot. The top two vote-getters then face off in the general election. The top two system is used in California and Washington, as well as in Nebraska for its nonpartisan elections to the state's legislature. Louisiana uses a variation of top two in which a second-round runoff only takes place if a candidate fails to win more than 50% of the vote in the first round.

“Top two” primaries are sometimes referred to as “open primaries,” but that term refers to party primaries in which all voters may choose to participate in a given party's primary. By contrast, the top two system eliminates party primaries altogether, with the field winnowed regardless of candidates' party affiliation.

Following is a running list of states by types of party primary, updated February 2012:

 

State

Closed

Open

Semi-Closed

Source

Remarks

Presidential Primary or Caucus

Alabama

 

x

 

Ala. Code § 17-13- 7

No party affiliation required at registration.

Open

Alaska

 R

 D

 

Alaska Stat. §§ 15.25.014, 15.25.060

Parties select who may vote in their primaries. To vote in the GOP primary, a voter must be registered as a Republican 30 days before Election Day.

Open

Arizona

 

 

 x

Ariz. Att'y Gen. Op. No. I99-025 (R99-049)

Arizona uses a "Presidential Preference" system instead of a traditional primary system. Voters must be registered for a party in order to receive a ballot.

Closed

Arkansas

 

x

 

Ark. Code Ann. § § 7-7-306- 308

No party affiliation required at registration.

Open

California

N/A

N/A

N/A

Proposition 14; CA S.B. 28

California uses the "Top Two" Plan. On June 8, 2010 voters passed Prop. 14 to create a nonpartisan blanket primary system in which all candidates are listed on the same primary ballot and the top two vote recipients face off in the general election.

R: Closed; D: Semi-Closed

Colorado

x

 

 

Colo. Rev. Stat. § 1-7-201

Only voters affiliated with a particular party may vote in its primary.

Closed

Connecticut

x

 

 

Conn. Gen. Stat. §§ 9-431, 9-59

Parties may choose to allow for semi-closed elections if they make a change to their party rules; however, as of now, the primaries remain closed.

Closed
District of Columbia x     D.C. Code Ann. § 1-1001.09(g)(1); 1-1001.05(b)(1) Closed primary for D.C. elected officials such as Delegate, Mayor, Chairman, members of Council, and Board of Education. Closed

Delaware

x

 

 

Del. Code Ann. § 3110

Only voters affiliated with a particular party may vote in its primary.

Closed

Florida

x

 

 

Fla. Stat. Ann. § 101.021

Only voters affiliated with a particular party may vote in its primary.

Closed

Georgia

 

x

 

 

No party affiliation required at registration. However, on Election Day, voters must declare an oath of intent to affiliate with the particular party for whom they are voting on Election Day.

Open

Hawaii

 

x

 

Haw. Rev. Stat § 12-31

No party affiliation required at registration. In the presidential caucuses, any person may vote in the Republican caucus as long as he or she fills out a Republican Party card on that day; only registered Democrats may participate in the Democratic caucus.

R: Open; D: Closed

Idaho

 R

 

D

Idaho Code Ann. § 34-904A

Until 2011, all Idaho primaries were open. After the GOP obtained a declaratory judgment that mandating open primaries violated freedom of association and was thus unconstitutional in Idaho Republican Party v. Ysura, the legislature passed a bill allowing parties to choose which type of primary they use. Democrats have chosen a semi-closed primary; unaffiliated voters may register a party at the polls on election day, but they are bound to that party affiliation at the next election.

R: Closed; D: Semi-Closed

Illinois

 

 

x

10 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/7-43, -45

No party affiliation required at registration. Voters declare their party affiliation at the polling place to a judge who must then announce it "in a distinct tone of voice, sufficiently loud to be heard by all persons in the polling place." If there is no "challenge," the voter is given the primary ballot for his or her declared party.

Semi-Closed

Indiana

 

x

 

Ind. Code §§ 3-10- 1-6, 1-9

No party affiliation required at registration. Classified as a "modified open" primary." A voter must have voted in the last general election for a majority of the nominees of the party holding the primary, or if that voter did not vote in the last general election, that voter must vote for a majority of the nominees of that party who is holding the primary. However, there is really no way to enforce this, and cross-over occurs often. The same modified open primary is used for the presidential primary.

Open

Iowa

 x

 

 

 

Voters may change party on the day of the primary election.

Closed

Kansas

R

 

D

Kan. Stat. Ann. §§ 25-3301

Federal courts declared KS law unconstitutional and now the parties decide who will vote in their primaries. In 2012, Republicans will hold closed primaries; however, they will allow unaffiliated voters to register Republican on election day. Democrats will allow both affiliated and unaffiliated voters to vote.

Closed

Kentucky

x

 

 

Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 116.055

Only voters affiliated with a particular party may vote in its primary.

Closed

Louisiana

 

x

 

Act 570

Voters do not have to register by party affiliation. The congressional primaries changed from a closed system to an open system with the passage of Act 570, effective January 1, 2011

Closed

Maine

x

 

 

Me. Rev. Stat. Ann. tit. 21, §§ 111, 340

Only voters affiliated with a particular party may vote in its primary.

Closed

Maryland

x

 

 

Md. Code Ann., Elec. Law §§ 3- 303, 8-202

Parties may choose to hold open primaries, but must notify the State Board of Elections 6 months prior.

Closed

Massachusetts

 

 

x

Mass. Gen. Laws ch.53 §37

Affiliated voters must vote in the primary of their party; however, unaffiliated voters may vote in either primary.

Semi-Closed

Michigan

 

x

 

Mich. Comp. Laws § 168.575; Public Act 163

Voters do not have to declare a political party to vote; but must vote for all one party once they enter the voting booth.

Open

Minnesota

 

x

 

Minn. Stat. § 204D.08

Only voters affiliated with a particular party may vote in its primary.

Open

Mississippi

 

x

 

Miss. Code Ann. § 23-15-575

No registration by party affiliation. However, in order to participate in the primary, a voter must support the nominations made in that primary.

Open

Missouri

 

x

 

Mo. Rev. Stat. § 115.397

No party affiliation required at registration.

Open

Montana

 

x

 

Mont. Code Ann. § 13-10-301

No party affiliation required at registration. Each voter has the choice which ballot to use on Election Day.

Open

Nebraska

 

 

x

Neb. Rev. Stat. § 32-912

For federal elections, affiliated voters must vote in the primary of their party; however, unaffiliated voters may vote in either primary. For partisan state-level elections, unaffiliated voters may vote in the Democratic primary but may not vote in the Republican primary.

Semi-Closed

Nevada

x

 

 

Nev. Rev. Stat. §§ 293.287, 293.518

Only voters affiliated with a particular party may vote in its primary.

Closed

New Hampshire

x

 

 

N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann § 659:14

Closed primaries in effect; but the statute allows for semi-closed primary if that party's rules allow for it.

Semi-Closed

New Jersey

x

 

 

N.J. Stat. Ann. § 19:31-13.2 

Only voters affiliated with a particular party may vote in its primary.

Closed

New Mexico

x

 

 

N.M. Stat. §1-12-7.2

Parties may choose to allow for semi-closed elections if they make a change to their party rules; however, as of now, the primaries remain closed.

Closed

New York

x

 

 

N.Y. Elec. Law § 5-304

Only voters affiliated with a particular party may vote in its primary.

Closed

North Carolina

 

 

 x

N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 163-59, -119

State law provides for closed primaries, but both parties have opened them up to unaffiliated voters, who may choose on Election Day.

Semi-Closed

North Dakota

 

x

 

N.D. Cent. Code, § 40-21-06

The only state without voter registration. To vote in the Republican caucus you must have affiliated with the Republican Party in the last general election or intend to do so in the next election. 

R: Closed; D: Open

Ohio

 

x

 

Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 3513.19

Voters' right to vote in the primary may be challenged on the basis that they are not affiliated with the party for whom they are voting in the primary.

Open

Oklahoma

x

 

 

Okla. Stat. §26-1-104

Only voters affiliated with a particular party may vote in its primary. Closed

Oregon

x

 

 

Or. Rev. Stat. §§ 247.203, 254.365

As of February 2012, the Oregon Republican Party voted to partially open the Republican primary. The primary remains closed for the presidential and legislative elections; however, unaffiliated voters may vote in the Republican primary for the offices of secretary of state, attorney general, and treasurer.

Closed

Pennsylvania

x

 

 

25 Pa. Stat. Ann. § 2812

Only voters affiliated with a particular party may vote in its primary.

Closed

Rhode Island

 

 

x

R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 17-9.1-23

An unaffiliated voter for the past 90 days may designate his or her party affiliation on election day by voting for that party in the primary.

Semi-Closed

South Carolina

 

x

 

S.C.Code Ann. §§ 7-11-10

No party affiliation required at registration.

Open

South Dakota

R

 

D

S.D. Codified Laws § 12-6-26

Parties may choose to allow for semi-closed elections. Democrats have opened up their primaries to allow unaffiliated voters to vote. R: Closed; D: Open

Tennessee

 

x

 

Tenn. Code Ann. § 2-2-102 

No party affiliation required at registration.   Open

Texas

 

x

 

Tex Elec. Code Ann. § 172.086

No registration by party; voters are not held to affiliation of past election. Each year, voters have a clean slate and must choose on primary day whether to vote by a party affiliation or as unaffiliated; voters are held to that affiliation in the runoff. For the presidential primary, it is the same system as of December 19, 2011.

Open

Utah

R

D

 

Utah Code Ann. §§ 20A-2-107.5

Parties may choose to open up the primary. Currently, Republicans have a closed primary while Democrats have opened up the primary.

R: Closed; D: Open

Vermont

 

x

 

Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 17, § 2363

No registration by party. For presidential primary, voters must declare which ballots they want.

Open

Virginia

 

x

 

Va. Code Ann. § 24.2-530

No party affiliation required at registration. 

Open

Washington

N/A

N/A

N/A

Wash. Rev. Code § 29A.52.112, 29A.36.171

Similar to California's Top Two system.

R: Closed; D: Semi-Closed

West Virginia

 

 

x

W. Va. Code § 3-5- 4

Technically a closed system, but all parties allow any voter who is not registered with an official party to request their ballot for the Primary Election.

Semi-Closed

Wisconsin

 

x

 

Wis. Stat. § 6.80

No party affiliation required at registration.

Open

Wyoming

x

 

 

Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 22-5-212

A voter can change his or her party affiliation on election day.

Closed