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Nonpartisan Primaries

What is a closed primary?

Unveiling the Impact and Challenges of Closed Primaries

Alana Persson
Digital Marketing Associate
April 11, 2024

In the United States, primary elections determine which candidates appear on the general election ballot. However, not all primaries are created equal, and the type of primary system a given state uses can significantly impact voter participation and election outcomes. The most restrictive system is the closed primary.

What are Closed Primaries?

All closed primaries are partisan, meaning Democrats and Republicans each hold a separate primary election to determine their nominees for the general election. In a closed primary system, only registered members of a political party are permitted to vote in that party's primary. To participate, voters must declare their party affiliation by a deadline set by the state government before the primary election. Closed primaries are publicly funded, meaning that all taxpayers, regardless of their party registration, play a part in footing the bill for these elections.

Fifteen states have closed partisan primaries for congressional and state offices. Only registered party members in these states have a guaranteed right to vote in primaries. Independent voters are barred from participating in primaries unless the parties establish a rule allowing them to participate, which is extremely rare.

Moreover, nearly half of states (22) hold closed presidential primaries or caucuses. In those states, over 23 million registered independents (and another 4 million minor party voters) lack the right to participate in presidential nominating contests.

The impact of closed primaries on independents is further illustrated in a new report produced by the Unite America Institute, “Not Invited to the Party Primary: Independent Voters and the Problem with Closed Primaries.” See the full report for more information. 

The Case for Nonpartisan Primaries

One solution to the limitations imposed by closed primaries is the adoption of nonpartisan primaries. Unlike their closed counterparts, nonpartisan primaries allow all registered voters to participate, regardless of party affiliation. Candidates from all political parties and backgrounds appear on the same primary ballot, and all voters choose their favorite candidate. The top finishers advance to the general election where whoever earns majority support wins. This system promotes voter participation and ensures that the candidates who advance to the general election have broader support among the electorate.

The Path Forward

Implementing a nonpartisan primary system does not require a Constitutional amendment or an act of Congress. In fact, several states have already replaced party primaries with nonpartisan primaries that give all voters the freedom to vote for any candidate in every election, regardless of party. As our political landscape continues to evolve, it's crucial to consider how our primary systems can be reformed to put voters first.

To learn more, check out our explainer on primary systems. Also, purchase a copy of Nick Troiano’s new book, The Primary Solution, for a more in-depth understanding of how primary systems work and their implications for voters and democracy. ​