For many, the general election is an exciting affair. It’s the climax of a long campaign season marked by warring ideas between partisan candidates. However, in most hotly contested races between major party candidates, those in the running had to win a primary election earlier in the year to secure a spot on the general election ballot. Mechanically, a primary works like the general election. The difference is that would-be candidates run against members of their own party to secure that party’s nomination for the office they seek.

Open Versus Closed

There are two dominant forms of primary election. The first is a closed primary. In a closed primary, only voters registered with a specific party may vote in that party's primary contest. In an open primary, there is no such requirement. Any registered voter who wishes to participate in any primary may do so, regardless of party registration.

Open Primaries and Crossover Voting

Crossover voting refers to members of a party voting in the primary of another party. Democrats and independents voting in an open Republican primary would be an example of crossover voting.

Party Crashing

One criticism and potential pitfall of the open primary system is that it enables party crashing. Party crashing is a form of political sabotage that occurs when members of one political party take part in the primary of the opposing party for the express purpose of supporting the candidate they feel will be easier to defeat in the general election.

Free Association

Some critics of open primaries question the system's constitutionality. They argue that the First Amendment guarantees the right to free association, a right exercised by all who choose to belong to a political party, and that the First Amendment also guarantees the right not to associate. According to the critics, when states allow Democrats a say in choosing a Republican candidates via open primary, for example, they are violating Republicans' First Amendment rights.