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What's a Primary Election?
By Steven Ehrenberg

While Karen Konkolics, of Bloomsburg, Pa., votes, in the booth, her home-schooled children, from left, Hannah, 4; Joshua, partly hidden in the voting booth with his mom, 6; Sarah, 11; Rachel, 10; and Jacob, 8, soak up the election day atmosphere at the Espy Fire Hall on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2003. (Bill Hughes/Bloomsburg Press Enterprise/AP Wide World)

In a primary, candidates are nominated.
In an election, candidates are elected.

It sounds simple, but it's not. Most states hold a presidential primary (or a caucus, which is similar to a primary) in the late winter and spring. Citizens head to the ballot booth to vote for their favorite candidate.

Once the primary ballots are counted, each state party picks out a delegation, or a group of people, to represent the state's preferences. For example, if most Texas Democrats vote for John Kerry, a smaller percentage votes for Richard Gephardt, and an even smaller percentage votes for Howard Dean, then most of the delegation will support Kerry, some will support Gephardt, and a few will cheer on Dean.

To win the nomination, a presidential candidate must be selected by a majority of all states' delegates.

Franklin Who?

If you think this is hard to understand, be thankful you weren't trying to understand primaries two centuries ago.

Take the case of Franklin Pierce. The year was 1852, and the Democrats were divided. All of their strongest candidates, it seemed, were beloved by one group and hated by another. But to win the party nomination, two thirds of the delegates had to agree.

At their convention in Baltimore, they cast ballot after ballot, but couldn't agree on anybody. Finally, on the 35th ballot, somebody brought up the name of Franklin Pierce, a little-known Congressman from New Hampshire. He was handsome, well-spoken, a war veteran, and a poet in his spare time—and most delegates hadn't heard of him. But since they couldn't find anybody they liked better, the delegates picked Pierce, who went on to become the nation's 14th President.

Super Tuesday

Often, a presidential candidate will wrap up the nomination long before all states have held their primaries. Remember: All a candidate needs to win the nomination is a majority of delegates. If he or she wins a lot of delegates right away, the contest could be over early.

The big day for primaries is the first Tuesday in March, or Super Tuesday. On March 2 this year, voters in California, Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington will vote in their primaries.

The following Tuesday, four Southern states will hold their primaries: Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. If the Democratic and Republican candidates haven't clinched the nomination before then, they probably will on that day.

Open and Closed Primaries

There are two kinds of primaries. In a closed primary, only party members can vote in their party's primary. In Pennsylvania, only voters registered as Republicans can vote in the state Republican primary. In California, only registered Democrats can vote in the state Democratic primary.

In an open primary, voters cast their ballot in one primary of their choosing. Indiana Republicans can, if they want, vote in the Indiana Democratic primary instead of the Republican primary. A member of Oregon's Green Party, or its Libertarian Party, or its Reform Party, or any one of six other parties, can vote in whichever primary he or she likes best.

Each state party sends its delegates to a national convention. This year, the Republicans will hold their convention in New York City, while the Democrats will hold their convention in Boston, Massachusetts. Delegates vote in one big room, confetti pours down on the winner, and balloons float up to the ceiling. Music blares, speeches are made, and one candidate goes back to the campaign trail hoping to become—or remain—the President of the United States.