primary, in the United States, a preliminary election in which the candidate of a party is nominated directly by the voters. The establishment of the primary system resulted from the demand to eliminate the abuses of nomination by party conventions, which were often open to manipulation by party bosses. The primary was first used in local elections—as early as 1842 in Crawford co., Pa. The Wisconsin legislature established the first primary for the nomination of statewide candidates in 1903. In 1917 all but four states had enacted primary laws, which varied widely from state to state in scope and detail of administration. Many states extend the primary principle to the presidential level, providing for an election in which voters register their preference among presidential candidates and select state delegates to nominating conventions of the national parties. A primary may be nonpartisan, i.e., the candidates are not listed by party affiliation (usually in local and judicial elections); open, i.e., any registered voter may vote for a candidate for office from any party; or closed, i.e., only registered party members may vote for the party's slate of candidates. In a blanket primary the candidates of all the parties are listed on a single ballot; nonbinding primaries, sometimes called "beauty contests," do not require the party to adhere to the result of the primary in choosing its candidates. In states and localities where one party is dominant the primary, rather than the regular election, is crucial in the selection of officeholders. Critics of the primary system point to the great cost of primary campaigns and to the often unrepresentative nature of the comparatively few voters who thus select the party candidates.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.