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Open primaries, closed primaries, and blanket primaries

Primary elections, a key part of the democratic process, can be closed, open, or blanket. In closed primaries, only party members vote. Open primaries allow any voter to participate. Blanket primaries pit all candidates against each other, with the top two advancing to the general election.

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Video transcript

- [Presenter] Let's talk about primary elections, which are often known as primaries. One way to think about them is that they're just preliminary elections used to get down to a fewer number of candidates. A very simple example would be let's say there's a congressional seat in your district, and there's three folks who are interested in that position who associate themselves with the Democrats. And let's say there's also three folks in your district who are interested in running for that position who associate themselves with the Republicans. There are some situations where you can have just a big preliminary election where they all run against each other. We'll talk about that in a second. But, usually you have a situation where they try to think about, well, let's just pick one to represent the Democrats, and let's just pick one to represent the Republicans. And so that's where the primary election would happen. So you would have a Democratic primary where these folks would run against each other, and whoever gets the most votes would then go on to represent the Democratic Party in that election. So let's say that person wins, then they will go on into the general election. Likewise, these three folks would run against each other in the Republican primary, and whoever gets the most votes, let's say it's that person right over there, they would go to the general election to go against likely the Democrat right over here. So this is the person who would go against the Democrat. And then they are going to compete in the general election against each other, head to head, and then whoever gets that would get the congressional seat. Now even in this type of primary, you could call this a partisan primary, there's an interesting question. Who votes in this Democratic Party primary? Who votes in that? And, who votes in the Republican Party primary? And there's actually two systems for this, or two general buckets, and there's some nuances from region to region. But one way is that only registered Democrats could vote in the Democratic primary, pick who represents their party in the general, and only registered Republicans can vote in the Republican primary. That situation where only registered folks can vote in their respective primaries, that is called a closed primary. It's called closed because it's not open to just anyone who wants to vote in the primary. Only the people who have already registered in that party can vote. Now you can imagine the opposite of that is the open primary, so open primary, where even though these are partisan primaries, you are trying to figure out who's going to represent the Democrats, and who's going to represent the Republicans, you can allow people who are either not affiliated with a party or even people who are affiliated with the other party to vote in your primary. So, for example, in this Democratic primary, there could be, for some reason, folks who feel passionate about this candidate who are actually registered Republicans but who they wanna vote in this primary. Or you could have people who are unaffiliated who would vote in this primary if we are dealing with an open primary. Now one interesting question is, is how could the dynamics change if we're dealing with a open versus a closed primary? Well, political scientists like to think a lot about this, and even states like to think about this, in terms of what is appropriate? What is most representative? What gives the people of that state the fairest voice in their elections? Now people who like closed primaries might say, well look, we're trying to figure out who represents the Democratic Party; it should only be Democrats. We're trying to figure out who represents the Republican Party; it should only be Republicans. Now criticism of closed primaries might be, well, if you limit who gets to vote in the primary, then these candidates are only going to cater to the base. They're only going to cater to the interests of people in their party, and in particular, they might cater to people who are at the extremes of their party. For example, let's say we have a situation like this. Let's say that this is the population right over here, and people at the right end, these are conservatives. Conservatives. Conservative. And these folks right over here are liberal. And if you were to look at the population as a whole, let's say the distribution in the population. Let's say it looks something like this. You have some people here who are quite liberal, and then you have actually the bulk of the people who are some place in between, and then you have another bump of folks who are actually quite conservative. So you would guess that, hey, look, a view that's someplace in between, maybe a moderate view, would actually maybe be most representative of the people. But if you have closed primaries, what might happen? Well, the Democratic primary, the people who would be eligible to vote, would be these people right over here. It would be these people, the people who have registered as Democrats. And in the Republican primary, well, if it's closed, only the registered Republicans would vote, maybe these people right over here. And these people in the middle, these would be the unaffiliated-with-a-party people. And so, if you have different candidates here, let's say that this is candidate one, where they're here on the spectrum. This is candidate two, which is here on the spectrum, and candidate three is here on the spectrum. You could imagine that for this population, they're all going to say things that speak to this group. And in particular, they might actually, the person who wins, might actually be very successful of getting the people at the extreme left right over here. And so that person maybe is a person who goes off to the general election. Likewise, the same thing might be happening on the Republican side. You have the different candidates. Maybe their personal views put 'em right over here. And it's this person who is furthest to the right who's really able to appeal to the folks right over here who ends up winning and represents the Republican Party. Well then what happens in the general election? The entire population has to pick between folks that actually are more indicative of either extreme. That maybe the closed primary system, it wouldn't have been so good for a candidate who is reasonably moderate on the Democratic side. Maybe someone is there, or a candidate who is right over here. Or maybe there's a candidate whose views are right in the middle. First of all, if they want to represent a party, they would have to moot pick one of these parties. And then to have a shot, they would have to represent views that would be to the left or to the right of where they truly are, and maybe they wouldn't have as good of a shot as the people who actually are quite liberal or the folks who are actually are quite conservative. So that's a criticism of the closed primary. An open primary might make this a little bit better, because you have these registered Democrats here. But folks from here might decide, hey, I wanna go vote there as well. So they might moderate things. Or folks from here might say, hey, I wanna go vote here as well. Now critics of an open primary would say, well those aren't the people who really are registered in that party. And you could also have a phenomenon of rating, where people maybe on the Republican side could say, look, you know what? I know who's gonna win here. The Republican primary doesn't need my vote. I'm gonna go and try to pick the weakest candidate on the other side so that in the general election, my candidate has the best shot. Now third type of primary is known as a blanket primary, often a nonpartisan blanket primary. In a nonpartisan blanket primary, instead of going through this partisan process, all the candidates here would go into one preliminary election. And in that preliminary election, the top two candidates would then go on to the general election. So two candidates are going to move on in a blanket primary, a nonpartisan blanket primary, and what's interesting there is you can actually get two candidates from the same party going. Proponents of a blanket primary say, hey, this is the fairest of it all. Instead of making things partisan, just let everyone run against everyone else, and the top two will then get to the general election. Now you'll see all three of these in the United States at congressional elections or even statewide elections. But if we're thinking about presidential elections, we're thinking mainly about these two. And when we're talking about presidential election, these are part of primary season where it's thinking about how many delegates candidates would get during the national convention where they actually pick their candidate. I'll leave you there. It's an interesting way to think about the different ways of voting, especially voting in a preliminary way to get down to a fewer number of candidates. I'll let you think about which one you prefer.