What is an Open Primary Election?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

An open primary is a primary election in which voters may cast votes on a ballot of any party. This distinguishes it from a closed primary, another type of primary election in which voters are limited by party affiliation. A related concept, the blanket primary, allows voters to vote for candidates of any party. The United States is one of the only nations in the world which uses a primary system, and the issues and advantages of the open primary are often a subject of debate in American politics, especially during election season.

In primary elections, voters choose their preferred candidate of a particular party to advance to the race for an office.
In primary elections, voters choose their preferred candidate of a particular party to advance to the race for an office.

In a primary election, voters indicate their preference for a candidate of a particular party to advance to the race for an office. For example, a voter might indicate his or her support for Green Party candidate X over all the other potential Green Party candidates. If that candidate wins enough votes at the primary, he or she will compete against candidates from other parties. The primary system is most commonly used for Presidential elections, because it allows each political party to get an idea of what kind of support a candidate has nationwide.

In open primaries, voters can cast their ballots for candidates within any party.
In open primaries, voters can cast their ballots for candidates within any party.

The idea of holding primaries before general elections arose in the early twentieth century, when the Progressive movement in America was trying to empower the populace. Advocates of the system proposed that using primaries would put more power into the hands of the people, instead of concentrating it with the political parties. An open primary reflects these ideals, since it allows voters more input on the process of nominating a candidate.

In classic closed primary, a Democratic voter receives a Democratic ballot, a Republican voter receives a Republican ballot, and so forth. In an open primary, a voter may request a ballot from any political party, regardless as to his or her personal party affiliation. In a blanket primary, a voter receives a general “blanket” ballot which allows him or her to vote for any candidate from any party. This would allow a voter to support a Libertarian candidate for President while simultaneously voicing preference for a Peace and Freedom Gubernatorial candidate, for example. The blanket primary is a natural extension of the open primary system, but very few states use it.

There are some distinct disadvantages to an open primary. It is not uncommon for voters from one party to request the ballot of an opposing party and vote for the weakest candidate, in the hopes of nominating that weaker candidate to the race for office. An open primary also allows voters to easily defect from their stated party affiliation. However, independents and people who have no party affiliation appreciate the open primary, as it allows them to participate in the democratic process without allying themselves to a particular political party.

In a closed primary, voters are restricted to their chosen political party.
In a closed primary, voters are restricted to their chosen political party.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


The problem is the "primaries" have become the elections. In the recent "election", we had to give up our right to vote for local candidates, in the Dem primary, called "the election", or give up the right to vote for state candidates in the Rep primary. My wife got the Rep ballot, and I got the Dem ballot, so we at least got one vote between the two of us. What's fair about that? Had we just declared we were independent, then we would both have been denied the right to vote! Let's let the parties pick their candidates, by primaries or back room deals, but then have a real election, where all candidates are on the same ballot.

All candidates are free to run in the general election, but there is no runoff, which favors party candidates. If we consider a 3rd party candidate to be the best choice, and vote that way, we take that vote away from the party candidate we consider "less evil". Bill Clinton was first "elected" president with 39 percent of the vote for that very reason. We need a runoff in the general election so as not to discourage independent and 3rd party candidates. Then the party primaries can be closed.

It is now government of the people, by the politicians, and for the politicians. One party buys the votes of supporters with our tax money, and sells their allegiance to one group of billionaires. The other party sells their allegiance to a different set of billionaires. It is called “campaign contributions,” although it should be called “advance bribes”.

All TV and radio stations, and networks, are required to broadcast in the “public interest”. They should provide time for a number of debates, giving all candidates equal time, and sell ads to pay for it.

Ban political ads. Give candidates equal right to present their views and voters and equal right to vote.


Sunny27 - I agree that the primaries should be closed because an open belt primary invites problems.

I also wanted to say that the only negative aspect of the closed primary is that the people that are registered Independent do not get to vote because they have not declared a party affiliation.


Cafe41 - I wanted to add that I like the idea of a closed primary instead of an open primary.

In a closed primary only those registered for that political party get to vote for the nominee. For example, if you are a registered Republican you will only get to vote in the Republican primary.

I prefer this to the open primary that allows people of either party to vote in the primary election. I think that the open party can have a sabotaging effect on the primary election because groups of people from the opposing party can collude and vote for a candidate that could easily be beat by the other side.

For example, in the past Democratic primary presidential elections Rush Limbaugh urged his listeners to vote for Hilary Clinton in order to create chaos in the Democratic party.

He even called this “Operation Chaos”. While this is funny at the same time it could have political repercussions because the people that voted in many of those primaries were voting to sabotage the Democratic Party which should not be allowed.

Elections have serious consequences but this is a factor that should really be explored when considering having an open primary vs a closed primary.


Anon64613 - I feel that the Tea Party movement is a viable democratic movement that developed out of frustrations with the current administration and those in congress.

It is a healthy measure of discourse that allows Americans the right to voice public dissention with the current crop of politicians. Too many laws have been passed that the American people are totally against that this revolt was going to happen sooner or later.

The passage of the health care bill was probably the last straw. I am glad that the Tea Party has so much influence because someone has to look out for the best interest of our country because the President isn't going too and neither was congress. I hope the present congress will be different.


Oh, we "Tea Baggers" are going to push Babs right out. We are going to dump the career legislature too. We are going to break the union hold on the state too. We are going to wake up all the good little soldiers in the progressive ranks so they'll know they have been used, abused, and played for fools for years. My God, what morons you are!

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