Georgia, Mississippi, Washington, others hold primary elections and caucuses


11:57 a.m. ET, March 12, 2024

Here’s how primaries work

A voter casts their ballots at a polling location at the Museum of Contemporary Art on March, 5 in Arlington, Virginia.

Kent Nishimura/.

Before Americans pick a president in November, they get to pick the candidates in a series of primaries and caucuses.

It’s a wonky process that has evolved over the course of the country’s history and continues to evolve today. Here’s what to know:

What is a primary?: It’s an election to select candidates, usually for a particular political party, to appear on the general election ballot. Primaries award delegates, and candidates must reach a magic number of delegates to win the nomination and appear on the general election ballot in November.

Who can vote in a presidential primary? It varies by state. Primaries are generally conducted in polling places like any other election. But some states have “open primaries,” meaning any registered voter can vote in either the Democratic or Republican primary. Other states have “closed primaries,” meaning only people registered in a particular political party – usually Republicans or Democrats – can vote in that party’s primary. Others offer voting day registration, which essentially opens the primaries to most registered voters.

If multiple candidates win in party primaries in different states, how is the ultimate presidential candidate determined? Delegates can either be apportioned through a winner-take-all system, meaning the top candidate in a state’s primary gets all of that state’s delegates, or they can be apportioned proportionally to the primary election results. Some states have thresholds where every candidate who gets over a certain amount of the vote – say, 20% – may be entitled to delegates. Democrats these days apportion all of their delegates proportionally.

Republican rules this year generally require that states with primaries and caucuses before March 15 apportion delegates proportionally. States with primaries and caucuses after March 15 may switch to a winner-take-all format.

Get more of your primary questions answered here.

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