It’s a midterm election year and control of the Congress hangs in the balance.
The Democratic Party is trying to protect its razor thin majority in the Senate,where Vice President Kamala Harris holds the tie-breaking vote, and a slim advantage in the House of Representatives during a year marked by a crisis in Ukraine and record inflation.
First, the parties must sort out who will be their nominees in the general election later this year. That process is underway in the congressional primary races playing out across the country.
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What is a primary election?
Primary elections whittle down the field of candidates who will compete in the general election under the banner of their parties.
Ccongressional primary elections are similar to playoffs in a sports league with two conferences. They typically produce a Republican and Democratic nominee who then battle it out in a final contest, the general election. Independent and third party candidates compete in the general election, too. But the dominance of the GOP and the Democratic party means the winner is almost one of their nominees.
But each state’s primary is a little bit different.
Because the task of running elections is left up to state legislatures, each state gets to decide how and when it holds its primary elections.
What is a closed primary?
If your state requires you to be a registered member of a party in order to vote in that party’s primary election, you live in a state with a closed primary.
Fourteen states hold closed primary elections, according to Ballotpedia, a nonpartisan election information organization. They include Florida, New York, Nevada and Kentucky.
Parties can decide whether to allow independent voters to participate in their primary election in some states; these are known as partially closed primaries, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
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What is an open primary?
Open primaries are primary elections where your party affiliation doesn’t necessarily prohibit you from voting in another party’s primary election. There are multiple variations of open primaries.
In some states, like Texas, you can vote in a party’s primary election no matter your own party affiliation.
In other open primary states, party primary elections are open to independent voters, but not registered members of a different party, according to the NCSL.
Some states require you to first register with the party whose election you plan to participate in, but allow registration the day of the election. This type of primary is held in Ohio, where Democratic Congressman Tim Ryan and Republican J.D. Vance emerged from the primary election as their party’s Senate nominees. The NCSL refers to Ohio’s primary as “partially open.”
What is a blanket primary?
In 1996, Californians passed a proposition to implement an open primary system that was subsequently struck down by the Supreme Court.
The so-called blanket primary allowed any voter, regardless of their party membership, to vote for a candidate of any party on a single ballot. The candidate with the most votes in each party would become the party nominee and advance to the general election.
When the proposition passed, the state Democratic Party sued California’s Secretary of State and ultimately secured a favorable ruling from the Supreme Court that said the proposition violated political parties’ freedom of association.
Today, California and other states hold a version of an open primary some call a “top-two” congressional open primary, in which voters can choose a candidate from any party from a single ballot.
The two candidates with the most votes then move on to the general election, regardless of their party affiliation. That means it is possible that two candidates from the same party advance.
In 2020, Alaska became the first state to implement the same system with four candidates proceeding to the general election.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What is a primary? Congressional primaries, explained.