It’s primary season, and—wait! Don’t stop reading! OK, we know what you’re thinking: Primaries can seem a lot less exciting than the Big Dance in November, but those in the know, know. Your primary vote is absolutely critical. Why? Because in a primary election, you get to choose a candidate you actually love, a candidate who’ll protect your rights and strengthen your community. If you wait for the general election, especially when you live in a district that leans heavily Republican or Democrat, that person could be long gone and you’ll be stuck voting for someone you might not even like.
In fact, the vote you cast in your state’s primary may be the most important vote you cast all year. Why? Let’s find out.
What Is a Primary Election?
First things first: A primary is basically an election *before* the main election. It’s when voters in each party get to choose the candidates who will be on the ballot in November. Primary elections are taking place right now all over the country. If you care about what’s happening in your community and want to elect progressive candidates who will protect your rights, vote in your state’s primary—especially if you live in an area dominated by one party.
Why Primaries Are Becoming So Important
For years and years primaries didn’t really get much attention from the media or from voters (turnout in primaries has traditionally been a lot lower than turnout in general elections). But that’s starting to change. With so many districts around the US becoming dominated by either Democrats or Republicans, parties, candidates, and their financial backers are pouring a lot of money into primaries at all levels of government—local, state, and federal. They see it as an effective way to gain a political advantage before most people have started paying attention.
This trend toward single-party districts is bad for democracy. Gerrymandering, the process by which lawmakers draw districts to unfairly entrench one political party’s power, is a big reason we’re seeing it happen. Gerrymandering ensures that some votes are more important than others, hurts people of color (by minimizing their political power), and reduces competitiveness. In fact, fewer than 8% of House districts are considered competitive today.
That means over 90% of districts lean toward one party or the other—making the winner of the general election in many places a foregone conclusion. When you live in an area that leans heavily Republican or Democrat, your primary is way more important than the November election! In our winner-take-all system, it’s the only time your vote really means something.
All Politics Is Local
Is the system rigged? It can definitely feel that way—but you have the power to do something about it. You can organize and protest and then vote leaders into office who can work with you to change the system. And that change starts at the local level. Big, federal-level contests get all the attention, but races for governor, state attorney general, prosecutor, state legislator, and other state and local offices have an even bigger impact on our lives.
We mentioned that parties and candidates are trying to use primaries to their advantage. But don’t forget: You can use them to your advantage too! In primaries, you get to choose from a variety of candidates from all over the political map—progressives jostling with centrists, extreme conservatives butting heads with slightly less extreme conservatives. You get to learn about down-ballot candidates’ takes on issues that matter to you and your neighbors. But if you skip the primary, you get no say in that selection. (And since so many people do skip the primary, your vote can count even more than it does in the general election!)
The Impact of Down-Ballot Races
With Washington, DC in a perpetual state of gridlock, local and statewide elected officials have a direct and very powerful role in shaping policy in so many areas that matter to our communities—like education, policing, the criminal legal system, infrastructure, transportation, climate action, the environment, and protecting our rights (including, after the Supreme Court’s disastrous decision overturning Roe, abortion).
Here in our hometown of Burlington, VT, for example, there’s a primary in August between two Democratic candidates for local prosecutor. One is the incumbent, a progressive reformer who wants to build on her efforts to end cash bail, prioritize alternatives to prosecution for lower-level crimes, transform public safety and invest in programs that address the root causes of crime, and protect people’s rights. The other is far less progressive, promoting antiquated and ineffective tough-on-crime policies. Since there’s no Republican challenger, whoever wins the primary will also win the general election.
This primary, as in so many others across the US, is where voters get to make a real choice. The only way we can elect progressive candidates at all levels of government who will improve our lives and strengthen our communities is to vote for them in the primaries.
Be a Voter!
Our electoral system is far, far from perfect, but voting is still the most effective way to make sure our voices are heard. And in this system, primaries are increasingly becoming the most important elections we have. Political parties and candidates are working hard to exploit their growing strategic importance, so voters need to step up and do the same.
Not sure who’s running in your state primary? Here’s an easy to find out.
Not sure when your primary is happening? This calendar should help.
If there’s a candidate you support, someone who represents your values and priorities, someone who gets what matters to your local community, who will fight for your rights and the rights of your neighbors, then vote for that person—now! Vote as if our democracy depends on it.** It does.