Voting in Primaries

The Importance of Voting in Primaries

With the Republican primaries underway, now is a good time to discuss the importance of voting in the primaries. Nearly 90% of congressional elections are decided in the nominating contests. That’s a striking number, and one that demands a simple action: Vote in the primaries.

Some states have “open primaries,” in which any registered voter can cast a ballot regardless of party affiliation (or lack thereof). However, in states with “closed primaries,” voters must be registered with a party to participate in that side’s nominating contests.

And that’s where most congressional races are decided. The data is clear: The vast majority of U.S. House districts lean so far to either party that often the result is a foregone conclusion. In 2020, just one-quarter of the voting-eligible population participated in the presidential primaries. And when considering the districts that determined control of the House, just 10% of voters selected 83% of the U.S. House of Representatives, according to a study by Unite America.

With primary elections increasingly deciding the outcome of a race, it’s important that voters engage in the entire process when possible. For partisans, that’s easy. In every state, voting-eligible people who are registered with a party can vote in that party’s primaries. While primary voting is often limited to just party members, other states allow all registered voters to participate.

Advocates of open primaries argue that closed systems are unfair to independents (who make up about more than 40% of the electorate), produce more extreme nominees, and, as publicly funded elections, should be open to everyone.

Opponents argue only members of a party should be allowed to select its nominees and open primaries are subject to subversion by voters of another party hoping to nominate an “unelectable” candidate. (Research out of Marquette University argues such sabotage, if it exists, would cancel itself out.)

Others have argued that partisans in places where their party may be unlikely to win a general election (say, Democrats in Mississippi or Republicans in Massachusetts) should vote in the opposing party’s primary, not to sabotage the race but to try to nominate a more moderate candidate.

Because so few people – the most partisan people – are determining primary winners, candidates who appeal to party wings are most likely to advance to the general election. Voters are then asked to choose between candidates who have ignored the middle. But there are still options for finding candidates who are willing to work across the aisle.

One tool is the Common Ground Scorecard, which assesses elected officials and candidates on their willingness to pursue solutions through listening and productive conversation, rather than scoring political points. Using nearly 20 objective and subjective data points from a variety of bipartisan sources, the Scorecard can help voters determine which candidates to support if good policymaking is more important than party identity. It considers five key areas:

  • Official Performance — bipartisan bill sponsorship for legislators or bipartisan job approval for executives
  • Personal Actions — public conversation across political differences and joining an official from the opposing party for a visit of their district
  • Communication — promoting common ground
  • Commitments — affirmation of Common Grounder Commitments
  • Outstanding Common Grounder — awarded for common ground behavior or boldly champions common ground

The Scorecard grades incumbents and candidates for five offices: president, vice president, senator, House member, and governor. Try it out now.

Learn how your state handles primary voting.

Check the primary date for your state.