Open Vs. Closed Primary Election: What’s the Difference?

Primary season is up and running for most states, with Florida voters heading to the polls this August. As the mail-in ballots are sent, some voters might wonder where their primary ballots are, or why they haven’t received them. Florida’s primary system and voting laws could affect whether or not you have the chance to vote before the General Election in November. Knowing the difference between an open and closed primary election can prepare you to vote, wherever you live.

What Are the Different Types of Primaries?

During a primary election, political parties choose their candidates to run for office in the general election. There are two main types of primaries: open and closed.

  • In an Open Primary Election, any registered voter may vote in whichever primary they wish. However, voters are restricted to voting in one primary only. For example, an independent voter can vote in the Republican primary, but not the Democratic primary as well.
  • In a Closed Primary Election, participation is limited to registered members of the party involved. For example, registered Registered republicans will be the only ones to vote in the Republican primary.

Some states have modifications to these extremes, which allow independent and non-party affiliated voters to alter their registration at the time of the primary or where non-affiliated voters may vote. However, cross-party voting is not allowed. These modifications allow easier access to voting by non-affiliated voters.  

In addition, there are nonpartisan blanket primaries (jungle primaries), where candidates of all parties participate in a single primary and the top two candidates compete in the general election — regardless of party affiliation. This is rare, and can be seen in California and Washington State.

In 2018, there are 19 states with open primaries, 17 states with strictly closed primaries and 7 which allow same day changes of affiliation.

Does Florida Have an Open or Closed Primary Election System?

Florida has closed primaries, with party affiliation set as part of the voter registration process.

Party affiliation must be declared at least 30 days prior to the primary election. If you wish to take part in the primary process this year, you will need to confirm your registration reflects membership in the party which best represents your views.

  • The primary election in Florida is August 28, 2018.
  • The deadline for registering and changing your affiliation this year is July 30, 2018.

You can register, or change your affiliation at a number of locations, including all Department of Motor Vehicles offices and on line at the Florida Department of State website. Learn more in our Mini Guide to Voter Registration.

In 2018, there was an attempt to change this by proposing that the Constitution Revision Commission allow a referendum moving Florida to a Top-Two Open Primary System, similar to California. This proposal did not make the cut for this election. For the time being, Florida will continue to have closed primaries.

open versus closed primary elections in Florida

What Are the Benefits of Closed Primaries?

The rationale for closed primaries appears to be two-fold. The first is the potential for spoilers and cross-party voting in order to cause the nomination of a weaker opposition candidate. There are examples of this happening, or at least of various outlets calling for voters to spoil the race:

  • In 2008, conservative pundit Rush Limbaugh instituted “Operation Chaos,” calling for his listeners to vote in Democratic primaries for Hillary Clinton, prolonging the Democratic primary battle. There is some evidence that this may have had a limited impact in Indiana.
  • In 2012, the liberal site Daily Kos launched “Operation Hilarity,” asking listeners to cross-over and vote for Rick Santorum. In Michigan, 9% of voters in the Republican primary were registered Democrats and half of them admitted to voting for Rick Santorum. However, this did not impact the outcome of the primary.

Overall, although there are sporadic claims of sabotage by candidates losing in open primary elections, there does not seem to be any clear and consistent evidence that this has occurred and altered results.

A second argument against open primaries is that it leads to blurring of the differences between parties. With a closed primary, all voters share the same fundamental values and thus should nominate candidates who best exemplify those values and principals.

In 2014, Thad Cochran of Louisiana won a narrow primary runoff victory for Senate nomination (and ultimately the election) over a Tea Party challenger.  His victory was driven in part by a high turnout of voters in predominantly Democratic areas. However, the most partisan Democratic voters participated in the earlier Democratic primary and were unable to participate in the run-off. Additionally, there was little chance that the Democratic nominee could defeat Cochran although he might have defeated the Tea Party candidate.

This shows the power of cross-party voting to block the election of highly partisan candidates.

What Are the Drawbacks of Closed Primaries?

Strictly closed primaries may also have negative consequences. For example, the electorate becomes more polarized, as do the nominated candidates.

In 2017, The Florida Independent Alligator argued that affiliating with a specific party pushes voters, especially younger ones, towards more extreme views as they are molded by the opinions of those around them.

In addition, prohibiting independent voters, who may be more centrist in their views, forces candidates to take more extreme positions to gain the nomination of their chosen parties. Once elected, these officials may be more dogmatic and less willing to compromise. This contributes to the continuing gridlock seen in our federal government.

Prepare to Vote in the Florida Primaries

If you missed the 2018 primary registration deadline, you can still change your party affiliation to vote in 2019, 2020, and beyond. You can also brush up on the issues facing voters in General Election so you’re prepared to cast your vote. Visit  Vote411.org to learn about state issues, or PinellasVoterGuide.com to learn where local politicians stand and which amendments are coming up.