Who decides who gets to vote in presidential primaries? We ask because the rules on this aren’t the same in every state, in case you haven’t noticed.
The upcoming Florida primary is a great example of why this question matters, too. In Florida, only preregistered Republican Party members can vote in the GOP primary. That’s different from South Carolina, where independents and even Democrats could cross over and participate in the Republican primary if they wanted to. It’s also different from New Hampshire, where independents (but not Democrats) could go GOP.
Then there’s Texas, where anybody can vote in either primary, but the second the lever is pulled, he or she then becomes a registered member of that party and gets branded by a red-hot “R” or “D” poker on the way out.
OK, we’re kidding about the brand. But the rest of that stuff is true. Who’s responsible for the tangled mess?
Amazingly, this is not Congress’s doing. Not directly, anyway. The rules governing presidential primaries are set by state legislatures and the parties themselves. Broadly speaking, there are four types of such elections:
Open primaries. These allow voters of any affiliation to vote for a candidate of whichever party they choose. Democrats can vote in the Republican primary and vice versa. Thirteen states have completely open primaries, according to FairVote.org.
Closed primaries. Only members of the party in question can vote in closed primaries. Twenty-two states, plus the District of Columbia, have closed primaries for both parties. Florida's is the first primary in which only tried-and-true Republicans can vote.
Semi-closed. In this option, members of a party can vote only in their party’s primary. Independents, however, can vote in either primary. (Only one per election, though.) Seven states have semi-closed systems for both the GOP and Democrats.
Hybrids. Eight states have hybrid systems, in which the rules for one party’s primary are different from the other’s.
Is this confusing? Yes. Is it fair that in some states, such as Connecticut and Maryland, the parties themselves get to draw up the rules for primaries that are paid for with tax dollars, and that those rules can change quickly year to year? Maybe not.
“The system in place is a tangled mass of state and party rules. This jumble could and should be simplified and standardized, or voters will find themselves too exasperated to care,” wrote FairVote legal fellow Elise Helgesen in December after compiling a comprehensive list of state primary types.