When choosing our various representatives in government, we rely on two main types of elections: primaries and general elections. A primary is an election where a candidate from a specific political party is chosen to run in the general election. A general election is where the representative is ultimately chosen.
In a primary election several candidates from each party run against each other; the winner represents that party. Even for national elections, the rules of every primary are set by the state and the party. As a result, there are different types of primaries: (To find out which of the following primaries your state has, visit this page and choose either congressional or presidential primary.)
1. The Open Primary
In an open primary, a voter picks candidates for one party, regardless of the political affiliation of the voter. The voter may not vote in more than one party primary at a time, however. For instance, a registered Democrat may vote in the Republican primary election, but will then be excluded from voting for the Democratic candidate.
2. The Blanket Primary
A blanket primary is one where a voter can vote in multiple primaries at the same time. For example, in a blanket primary, a voter can make a choice for the Republican nominee for one office and a Democrat nominee for another office.
3. The Closed Primary
When only registered members of a party are allowed to vote in their party’s primary, it is considered “closed.” This reduces the risk of people aligned with the opposing party negatively influencing the election.
4. The “Top Two” Primary
The top-two primary system puts all candidates, regardless of their party, on the same ballot. The top two vote-gettings then face each other in the general election. The top-two system is used in California and Washington, as well as in Nebraska for 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.
5. The Presidential Primary
Presidential primaries come in the same basic forms as other primaries, but the process for deciding a presidential candidate is more complex. In a presidential primary, the vote determines the delegates who will be sent to the party’s presidential nominating convention, where the ultimate nominee from each party is actually chosen.
The specifics again differ by state and by party, but in general, a presidential primary involves voting either for the preferred candidate or for the delegate who will go one to vote for a candidate at the convention.
Instead of using primaries, some states hold caucuses, which are meetings in which members of the party all get together to discuss, debate, and hold an informal vote on the delegates who will go to the national convention. There are states that hold both presidential primaries and caucuses, but in those cases, the primary serves solely as a reflection of public opinion and is not as binding as the caucus.
Different parties can handle the awarding of delegates differently as well. For example, the Democratic Party awards delegates depending on the percentage of votes each potential candidate receives, whereas the Republican Party awards delegates in a “winner-takes-all” manner (the delegates all support the same candidate).
In a general election, voters choose who will fill a public office. Often included in the ballot during such elections are initiatives, where voters can decide the fate of certain types of legislation or constitutional amendments. General elections are again handled primarily through the state, with laws and regulations varying widely. However, when it comes to choosing the president, the power of each state is limited by the Electoral College.
The Electoral College
Each state is granted a certain number of electoral votes, which is decided based on the size of each state’s delegation (how many Senate and House seats they have in the U.S. Congress). In most states (all but Maine and Nebraska), the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote is given all the electoral votes in the state. In order to be elected president, a candidate must receive a majority of the available Electoral College votes. Currently, there are 538 total possible electoral votes, meaning that to be president, a candidate must win at least 270 of them.
Technically, electoral votes are decided by electors, citizens who agree to abide by the election results when they meet at their respective state capitols to certify the vote at a specific time after the general election is held. While it is possible for an elector to change his or her pledged vote (and become what is known as a “faithless elector”), this is a rare occurrence and is handled differently by each state.
Before you can vote, you must register to vote. In many states, you can pre-register when you are 17 but you cannot vote unless you are 18 on election day (whether its the primary or general election.) You will need some proof that you are a resident. You can visit our page on registration to find more details about how to register, as well as absentee voting, voting from outside the country, etc.
In some states you can register online, but in other states you can pick up a registration form at certain state government offices and other locations. Many nonprofit organizations help people register, too.
The general election is always held on the first Tuesday in November, but the primaries are held at different times. If you want to vote in a primary, you must register before the deadline. In Pennsylvania for instance, the deadline to register is 30 days before an election. You can find out your state’s voter registration deadline and other requirements by starting at canivote.org which will direct you to your state’s website dealing with registration, voting times, polling locations, etc.
When a large group of like-minded individuals come together around a political ideology and form an organization dedicated to influencing the future direction of government, they can become a political party. Throughout American history, there have been several powerful political parties, but today, the vast majority of the populace identifies with either the Democratic or the Republican Party.
Generally speaking, the Democratic Party is built around social liberalism and progressive economics. It argues that government should take a proactive role in combating social injustice, environmental matters, and unregulated business. The Democratic Party today is marked largely by its focus on welfare, income equality, and an internationalist foreign policy that strives to be less interventionist.
The Republican Party (also known as the Grand Ol’ Party, or GOP), on the other hand, centers on social conservatism and free market economics. It argues that government should take a hands-off approach to the economy by reducing regulations and federal spending while lowering taxes. It’s known today for its promotion of traditional values and a foreign policy that is more interventionist.
Though the Democrats and the Republicans carry the most influence in modern America, there are a plethora of other parties that represent different views. There are far too many to list, but the three largest and most influential of these “third” parties are the Libertarian Party, the Green Party, and the Constitution Party.
The Libertarian Party is roughly defined as socially liberal and economically conservative. It tends to support strongly defended civil rights, free market economics, and a more isolationist foreign policy alongside free international trade. It is the largest and most recognized of the third parties.
The Green Party, which is often dubbed as further to the left than the Democratic Party, emphasizes environmentalism, social justice, and a participatory democracy where corporate influence is wholly rejected by government. It advocates community-based economics, environmental sustainability, and nonviolence.
Lastly, the Constitution Party, which is often seem as further to the right than the Republican Party, argues for a strict interpretation of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. It argues against federal taxation and subsidization, all forms of government welfare, and social policies such as legalized abortion and same-sex marriage. It advocates free trade supplemented by heavy tariffs, noninterventionalism, and strict rules for immigration.
All of the above descriptions are overly simplistic and do not necessarily represent the views of every member of the party. It is often the case that a leader for a party will take actions that seem to contradict the ideals of his or her party, and one should be careful not to paint an entire political ideology with the brush of a single representative.
To get a more detailed description of the parties and their positions on a wide range of issues, you can go to any party’s most recent “platform,” which is a general outline of the party’s intentions and values that is agreed upon and certified during its national conventions.
Here are links to the platforms of the five parties listed above:
Joining a Party
Those who feel strongly about politics tend to naturally align with a party. After you’ve come to terms with your own political beliefs and have a good sense of what each party stands for, it shouldn’t be hard to see which party you most support. If you are unsure, or if you don’t believe any of the parties stand for what you believe in, you can always consider yourself an “independent” (though you should be careful, since there is a small third party called the “American Independent Party”) or a “moderate.” Most states even have this as an official designation.
When you register to vote (if you’re on this site and you haven’t already, you should definitely consider registering to vote), you will be asked which party, if any, you belong to. Check the box for your party of choice, and you have officially become a member of that party. (You can always change your party affiliation if your political feelings change.) If you wish to be an active member, simply find the party’s website (you can reach each one easily enough through the above links to their party platforms) and sign up for their mailing lists, or find your local party headquarters and contact them. There are literally hundreds of ways to support a party, from simple donations to offering your time with an upcoming election, and those you contact will be more than willing to help get you started.
Note, however, that while the Democratic and Republican Parties are universally recognized, some states will not recognize many third parties. Even the Libertarian Party is only currently accepted by about 30 states. If you wish to join a third party that is not recognized by your state, go to the website, sign up, and look for any local branches that exist. If none exist, contact the party (the website will have a way to do this) and they will assist you in learning how you can support the party from your location. The party will probably be eager to assist a potential new member where it is not yet on the official register, since those voters are key to getting party recognition.