Understanding The U.S. Primaries

Mar 1, 2016

As primary election season finally gets underway, you may feel overwhelmed by all the political campaigning we are all experiencing. While candidates have been vying for voter support, now is actually one of the most important times for voter turnout.

To make the most out of your vote, get to know this important phase of the presidential election with our primaries guide:

  1. Words to know

    Here is some key vocabulary to brush up on.

    Primaries: Primary elections & caucuses
    Caucus: An informal gathering of political party members, organized by the political party. Party members show support for a candidate using an informal voting system (raise hands, stand in groups, use a ballot)
    Primary election: A state-organized election where citizens vote for candidates using a secret ballot
    Delegate: A person representing the views of a group of voters

  2. All about primaries

    During primary elections, citizens are able to decide which party candidate the party should choose by voting for convention delegates. These delegates go on to vote for the candidate they represent at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. Originally, in the 1820s, the party itself would make this decision during caucuses, but primaries were created when the populace began wanting to participate in the process. Even though the majority of U.S. states participate in primaries, 12 states still use caucuses. This process goes on from February to June; the National Conventions happen in July.

  3. How caucuses work

    Caucuses are important – especially the first one, the Iowa caucus. As a result, candidates and the press try to target Iowa in order to promote themselves leading up to the event. Caucuses are party-organized events that can take place in any number of public spaces, from a restaurant to a citizen’s own home. Commonly, you must be registered to vote to participate in a caucus: this makes sense, since caucuses involve debate and conversation, so active participation is encouraged.

    During the Republican caucus, voters arrive at the caucus location, listen to any last-minute pitches, and cast a secret ballot, which the GOP counts. States can either assign delegates based on the majority winner or assign them proportionally.

    During the Democratic caucus, supporters of each candidate stand grouped together and have a set amount of time to convince other voters to support their candidate. Eventually, the participants are counted, and candidates supported by less than 15% of participants are eliminated. Participants who supported an ineligible candidate must support their second choice. A second poll is then taken, and the most supported candidates receive a proportional number of delegates to represent them at the National Convention. (For example, a candidate with 50% of support would get 5 out of 10 delegates.)

  4. The primary elections process

    Compared to the caucus process, primary elections are a breeze. They are done at a polling location via secret ballot. However, rules for primaries depend on the state. For example, some states have closed primaries, which means that only registered Republicans and Democrats can vote in their respective primary.

  5. How can you become a convention delegate?

    A delegate is basically an actively involved citizen who participates in the activities of their party. Here are some possible ways you can be chosen as a convention delegate:

    • Elected by voters on a primary ballot
    • Appointed by party leaders
    • Elected by local party conventions
    • Become the party chair of your state
  6. What happens at national conventions?

    By the time the national conventions roll around in July, states have been announcing their convention delegates as the primaries happen. For this reason, it’s usually more or less clear who the party candidate will be before the announcement is made. At the National Conventions for each party, party members, congressmen, and the delegates picked in the primaries gather and announce the party’s presidential nomination.

Hopefully this guide has simplified the primaries for you so that you can be a more prepared, informed, and involved voter this election season. Next step: check the primary elections schedule and get out there and participate!

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