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In the United States, what are the State-By-State Rules for Voting in the Primaries?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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The state-by-state rules for voting in the primaries in the United States are extremely complex, as each state has derived its own unique way of approaching the nominating primary. Because of this, voters should treat the information below as a rough guideline, and they may want to check with the secretary of state in the state they plan to vote in to make sure that they are registered properly for primary elections. Election rules also change, sometimes dramatically, and this is very important to be aware of for people who are planning to vote.

Nominating elections in the United States are done in several ways. Some states have closed primaries, which means that you must be registered with a specific primary before voting in these locations. Others have open primaries, allowing voters to vote any ballot for any party. Many states have adopted a semi-closed system, which is sometimes called a semi-open system, in which voters may be able to request the ballots of specific political parties in the primaries. Not all parties allow non-partisan voters to request their ballots in a semi-closed primary, so if voting a particular party ballot is important to a voter, he or she may want to register with that party for the primary. Some states use conventions and caucuses, using meetings and gatherings to nominate candidates, and other states hold both caucuses and primaries, typically with the caucuses coming first.

States that hold traditional closed primaries include Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, and Washington DC. In West Virginia, Republican conventions are held early in the year of a presidential election, followed by a closed primary for all parties.

Seven states hold semi-closed primaries: Arizona, California, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Ohio, Texas, and Illinois. Within these states, different parties have different rules about whom they allow to vote on their ballots, so voters should check with the registrar of voters in their area. In California, for example, non-partisan voters may vote on the Democratic ballot, but not the Republican ballot.

Open primaries are held in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee, South Carolina, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Montana holds a closed Republican caucus early in the year, followed by an open primary.

Colorado, Hawaii, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, and Nevada hold closed caucuses. Wyoming holds county and state conventions where voters are allowed to select candidates, while Minnesota and North Dakota hold open caucuses. In Alaska, the caucus is semi open. Washington holds an open caucus earlier in the year, followed by an open primary, while Louisiana has an open, nonpartisan primary system.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

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

Discussion Comments
By anon994891 — On Mar 15, 2016

North Carolina is not a closed primary state. It is semi-open, or hybrid.

By anon54609 — On Dec 01, 2009

Each state makes its own rules, because the federal government was never intended to have the power it has today. The federal government was intended to unite the states, not run the states. I do agree though, that it could be better and here is my idea, although, I am sure it is not original.

Polls open across the country at 5 a.m. EST on voting day, and close at 5 a.m. EST the next day, allowing 24 hours of open voting with no opportunity for the press to sway voters by declaring the eastern state winners before polls close in the west -- no matter which party you belong to, you may vote in the primaries: Republicans, democrats, independents, green, constitution and the list goes on. Just my thought.

By anon13718 — On Jun 03, 2008

I would just like to say that I am completely baffled by the complexity of what i believe to be a very basic process, voting. Why does every state need their own set of rules? As part of the American right to vote theory, how does the process have the right or authority to punish voters? And where did this authority come from, who gave the rules for this? The Gore debacle was a disgrace to all of America, and we just stood there and watched Bush literally steal an election. For a minute there I thought I was in Russia or China, but i couldn't believe I was in America.


By bigmetal — On Feb 05, 2008

interesting! i didn't realize that there was so much disparity in primary voting from state to state!

By malena — On Feb 05, 2008

In the 2008 presidential race, there were 17 caucus states: Alaska, Colorado, District of Columbia (Democratic), Hawaii, Idaho (Democratic), Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Minnesota, Montana (Republican), Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico (Democratic), North Dakota, Washington, West Virginia (Republican), and Wyoming. Also, don't forget the territories! American Samoa and Puerto Rico (Democratic) have caucuses. Guam and the Virgin Islands have something that is not characterized as a caucus or primary.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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