A primer on primaries

Welcome to the Monday, July 10, Brew. 

By: Samuel Wonacott and Douglas Kronaizl

Here’s what’s in store for you as you start your day:

  1. A primer on primaries
  2. State governors issue 53 executive orders from June 19 to July 2
  3. A look at the upcoming school board recall in Richland, Wash.

A primer on primaries

The laws governing primary elections vary from state to state and can even vary within states by locality and political party. That’s become particularly evident in Idaho, where disagreement over a primary election ballot measure turns, at least in part, on terminology.

But before we get to that, we thought it’d be a good time to review what we know about primary systems across the country.

What is a primary?

Primary elections narrow a wider field of candidates who then compete in the general election. They can be nonpartisan, where candidates appear on the ballot without party labels, or partisan, where party labels appear on the ballot.

What are the different kinds of primary systems?

Partisan primaries can be divided into subtypes based on their rules for participation:

  • In closed primaries, participation is restricted to voters who are registered members of the political party holding the primary;
  • Semi-closed primaries are similar to closed primaries, but also allow unaffiliated voters to participate. For example, in South Dakota, Democrats and independents can participate in Democratic primaries but Republicans cannot; and,
  • In open primaries, any registered voter can participate in the primary.

Regardless of the rules in place, if multiple primaries are taking place for a given office, voters can only participate in one.

Primaries can also be classified by the way their outcomes are determined. 

  • In majority systems, the winning candidate must receive a majority vote, otherwise the race advances to a runoff at a later date;
  • In plurality systems, candidates do not need to receive a majority vote to advance to the general election.

And then we also have unique systems, used by the states shaded blue on the map above.

These include top-two and top-four primary systems, where every candidate appears on the same ballot and the top-two or top-four vote-getters advance to the general election. 

California and Washington use a top-two primary system for statewide and congressional elections, while Alaska uses a top-four primary system.

In those three states, candidates still appear on the ballot with their respective party labels, but they appear altogether on a single ballot. In effect, these types of primary systems consolidate multiple primaries and produce multiple winners on a single primary ballot.

Outside of statewide and congressional elections, Nebraska also uses a top-two primary system, but for its state legislative elections. Unlike Alaska, California, and Washington, Nebraska’s state legislative primaries are nonpartisan, meaning the candidates appear on the ballot without party labels.

And we can’t forget Louisiana, which is the only state that uses its particular system at a statewide level. You might have heard it referred to as a jungle primary, but we prefer to use the more precise term: Louisiana majority-vote system.

Similar to Alaska, California, and Washington, in Louisiana all candidates for an office appear on the same primary ballot and with party labels. What makes Louisiana unique is that a candidate can win the election outright on the primary ballot if they receive a majority vote.

That’s why we technically don’t consider Louisiana’s to be a primary system, because its primaries can act as general elections and do act as general elections if there are only one or two candidates running. Similar majority-vote systems are used in local and school board elections across the country.

Idaho Top-Four Ranked-Choice Voting Initiative

Now back to Idaho, where disagreements over how to define a particular primary system are affecting a ballot measure campaign in the state.

On June 30, Attorney General Raúl Labrador (R) released a title for a new initiative that would replace partisan primaries with top-four primaries for the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House of Representatives, state legislature, and other offices. This measure would also establish ranked-choice voting (RCV) in general elections.

In Idaho, partisan primaries are effectively semi-closed. Unaffiliated voters can choose to participate in any primary when voting. And parties themselves can choose to close or open their primaries. In 2022, for example, the Democratic Party held open primaries.

Idahoans for Open Primaries filed the initiative on May 2, referring to it as “The Idaho Open Primaries Act.”


In May, Labrador released an advisory opinion on the initiative in which he wrote: “The use of the term ‘open primary’ in the proposed initiative is misleading.”

On July 3, Idahoans for Open Primaries released a statement saying “they plan to file a lawsuit asking the Idaho Supreme Court to reject Labrador’s titles.”

The campaign has until May 1, 2024, to collect 62,896 valid signatures to get the initiative on the November ballot.

If it qualifies, it will be the fourth 2024 measure dealing with primaries and/or ranked-choice voting, alongside measures in Arizona, Nevada, and Oregon.

Click here to read about the Idaho initiative. Click below to read more about types of primary elections.

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State governors issue 53 executive orders from June 19 to July 2 

Governors, like the president, can issue executive orders. Typically, those orders regulate administrative agencies within the executive branch. Here’s an update on which governors have issued the most and least executive orders this year. 

State governors issued 53 executive orders from June 19 to July 2. New Mexico led the field with 34 orders issued. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) issued one, creating a veterans advisory council. Lt. Gov. Howie Morales (D), serving as acting governor, issued the remaining 33, all of which dealt with disbursing emergency funds relating to wildfire responses.

The past two weeks account for 7% of the year-to-date total of 810 orders issued. 

Overall, Georgia leads the year with 216 orders issued since Jan. 1, followed by Florida with 134 and New Mexico with 115.

Georgia and Florida routinely lead the country in executive orders because, unlike in most states, the governors there use orders to appoint or reappoint various offices like state boards, judgeships, and state attorney assignments.

In New Mexico, like over the past two weeks, most of the 115 orders issued this year have dealt with emergency funds for natural disasters like wildfires and flooding.

Governors have been issuing an average of 31 executive orders per week so far this year, roughly the same as last year’s weekly average of 30. 

Learn more about gubernatorial executive orders at the link below.

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A look at the upcoming school board recall in Richland, Wash.

On June 21, we released our mid-year recall report looking back at recall election efforts since the start of the year. 

Today, we’re looking ahead at an upcoming recall in Washington’s Richland School District, slated for Aug. 1.

This recall involves three of the five members of the school board: M. Semi Bird, Audra Byrd, and Kari Williams.

Recall supporters said this effort stems from a special meeting held on Feb. 15, 2022, amid the coronavirus pandemic, when the three members voted to make masks optional while a statewide mask requirement was in place. Supporters also alleged the members collaborated ahead of the meeting in violation of the state’s Open Public Meetings Act.

Bird, Byrd, and Williams all denied any wrongdoing. Williams said, “The general feeling for us is that this has always been about students … Giving families a mask choice option was doing what was best for every child.”

Coronavirus-related recall efforts at all levels of government have become more uncommon in recent years, accounting fro 37% of all recall efforts in 2020 and 2021, before dropping to 13% in 2022, and now sitting at 1% in 2023.

Overall, there have been 133 coronavirus-related recall efforts. Most of those—110, or 83%—never made it to the ballot. Voters approved five efforts (4%), removing officials from office, and defeated 15 efforts (11%).

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