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Primarily About Primaries and Caucuses

22 November 2007
Written by

So the presidential race is on and you've been hearing about who thinks who's going to take the nomination for each party in the party primaries and caucuses, but what are primaries and caucuses, and how are they different from each other? And how are these methods actually used to select a candidate for the party? What follows is a very general overview of the primary and caucus system and how candidates are selected at national conventions.

A caucus is a meeting of registered voters within a party where the voters that attend are able to cast their support for a specific candidate. When the caucus commences, there are statements made by each candidate about why they should be the one selected to be the party's candidate for president. Then the voters in attendance either cast ballots or organize into groups based on the candidate they support. In caucuses where voters organize themselves into groups voters that are undecided form their own group separate from the rest. Supporters of the candidates then try to get these undecided voters to join them. At the end of the caucus, the number of supporters each candidate has is tabulated to determine delegate apportionment.

A primary is a mechanism by which voters go to a polling place and cast a ballot. Depending on the state rules, the ballots may have the names of the presidential candidates, or they may have the names of the delegates that are being selected. In cases where the delegates are listed on the ballot, there is generally an indication of which candidate the delegate supports or an indication that the delegate is uncommitted.

There are two basic types of primaries: open primaries and closed primaries. In an open primary, any registered voter can vote in whichever primary they wish to, but they may only vote in one primary. In a closed primary, the voter is only allowed to participate in the primary of the party the voter is registered under.

There are also modified primaries, in which voters that are registered with a party are allowed to vote only in their party's primary, but independent voters are able to vote in one party primary, as well. Depending on your state, independent voters that participate in a primary may be automatically registered under that party afterwards.

The purpose of primaries and caucuses is to assign delegates to certain candidates at the party's national convention. The way delegates are assigned to candidates is dependent on the party rules. Delegates may be assigned proportionally or they may be assigned in a winner-take-all style. In a winner-take-all style, the candidate with the most supporters at a caucus, or the candidate with the most votes in a primary, gets all the delegates for that state. Proportional allocation of delegates is a little different. For instance, in a proportional allocation, if there are three candidates for one party in a state that has 10 delegates to the national convention and Candidate One received 60% support in the primary or caucus, Candidate Two received 30% support, and Candidate Three received 10% support, then Candidate One would receive 6 delegates from that state, Candidate Two would receive 3 delegates, and Candidate Three would receive 1 delegate.

The parties will each have a national convention after the primaries and caucuses are done in each state. At the convention, the delegates from each state cast their votes for their candidates and the winner is chosen as the party's presidential candidate. The winner then selects the vice presidential candidate.

Again, the process described above is a very general and generic description of the way in which states and parties select candidates. Your state election office will have more information about the specific methods in your state. You can find contact information for your election office here.

Related tags: blog, caucuses, legislative-terms, primary-elections

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