In American politics, there is a lot more to selecting our representatives than simply casting and counting ballots. The process of selecting the president is even more complicated, so we’ll save that for the next chapter. Instead, let’s look at the process by which state congressional representatives and local politicians get elected.
For most offices, a sequence of two public votes is held: a primary election and the general election. For non-partisan offices like sheriff and judge, in which political party affiliation is not declared, the primary election is usually used to narrow the field of candidates.
Typically, the two candidates receiving the most votes in the primary will then move forward to the general election. While somewhat similar to instant runoff voting, this is actually an example of sequential voting - a process in which voters cast totally new ballots after each round of eliminations. Sequential voting has become quite common in television, where it is used in reality competition shows like American Idol.
Congressional, county, and city representatives are partisan offices, in which candidates usually declare themselves a member of a political party, like the Democrats, Republicans, the Green Party, or one of the many other smaller parties. As with non-partisan offices, a primary election is usually held to narrow down the field prior to the general election. Prior to the primary election, the candidate would have met with the political party leaders and gotten their approval to run under that party’s affiliation.
In some states a closed primary is used, in which only voters who are members of the Democrat party can vote on the Democratic candidates, and similar for Republican voters. In other states, an open primary is used, in which any voter can pick the party whose primary they want to vote in. In other states, caucuses are used, which are basically meetings of the political parties, only open to party members. Closed primaries are often disliked by independent voters, who like the flexibility to change which party they are voting in. Open primaries do have the disadvantage that they allow raiding, in which a voter will vote in their non-preferred party’s primary with the intent of selecting a weaker opponent for their preferred party’s candidate.
Washington State currently uses a different method, called a top 2 primary, in which voters select from the candidates from all political parties on the primary, and the top two candidates, regardless of party affiliation, move on to the general election. While this method is liked by independent voters, it gives the political parties incentive to select a top candidate internally before the primary, so that two candidates will not split the party’s vote.
Regardless of the primary type, the general election is the main election, open to all voters. Except in the case of the top 2 primary, the top candidate from each major political party would be included in the general election. While rules vary state-to-state, for an independent or minor party candidate to get listed on the ballot, they typically have to gather a certain number of signatures to petition for inclusion.