How the Democratic Primaries Work

TL;DR – Voting in November next year is only one small part of the voting process. Also – your state might not actually have a primary election! It might have a thing called a caucus! Scroll down to find out more 😉

The primaries are how the two major parties determine who their nominee (the person you get to vote for in the REAL elections) for president will be. The campaigning you see happening right now is to get you to vote for a nominee.


There’s several steps to this. It’s a bit complicated, but to quickly sum up:

FIRST each district within a state (and US territory! but from now on I’m going to just say states) chooses who they want to nominate (either through primaries or caucuses – more on that later.) This happens between January-June of 2016 depending on your state. They pick delegates to represent their choices. This involves some complicated math, but the idea is that if 75% of your area likes Bernie and 25% likes Hillary, you will pick, say, 3 people to vote for Bernie, and 1 person to vote for Hillary.

SECOND those delegates travel to your state capitol, where the state’s Democratic Convention is held. All those people from all the areas come together and cast their votes, representing what each of you chose. They tally up the votes and pick delegates again – this time to represent your state. Just like in the electoral college, each state gets a specific number of delegates based on how big it is.

THIRD those delegates then go to the National Democratic Convention on July 25th-28th and they cast their votes again. Only this part is where it gets weird (and unfair, in my opinion). There are people called Super Delegates. These are party leaders and politicians (such as democratic state senators and governors) who don’t have to vote for someone just because an area or state told them to, but their vote counts the same as a state delegate’s vote. So that means that while your vote counts for just a percentage of your area, which counts for a percentage of your state, one of these Super Delegates’ vote is worth the exact same as, say, like, 15% of your entire state, depending on how many delegates you have.

One article I read said that the Super Delegates’ votes count for 20% of all the voting power all on their own. In some past elections, this has been a really big deal, with the states’ votes coming in REALLY close between two people and the Super Delegates pushing it one way or another.

The Democratic National Convention (DNC) tallies up the votes of all the state delegates and super delegates and announces who the democratic nominee will be for that election.

Primaries and Caucuses

Aka the audience participation part of tonight’s entertainment. 

Depending on your state, you either have a primary or a caucus

If you live in Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Kansas, Maine, Minnesota, Nevada, North Dakota, Wyoming and Iowa, or the territories of American Samoa, Guam and the Virgin Islands – you have a caucus! Otherwise, you have a primary.

These can be open or closed, again depending on state. Open primaries and caucuses means that any voter can participate, whether they have registered to vote as democrat, republican, or anything else. Closed primaries/caucuses are only open to members of THAT party – for example… people who, whenregistering to vote, chose “democrat” as their party affiliation are the only ones who can vote in a closed democratic primary election. I cannot find a good comprehensive list of which states are open/closed (Wikipedia got my state wrong so I don’t trust it) but if you google your state or look at your state government’s website, you can find which your state is.

You can’t participate in any of this unless you register to vote. Click here to get the forms and instructions based on your state. Print it out, sign it, mail it in!

A note – if you live in a very republican state and feel like no matter what you do, your state’s going to vote republican – VOTE IN THE PRIMARIES! Even if your state won’t vote democrat, your voice in the primaries can help choosewhich democrat the rest of the country is voting for.

Most of the people who vote in primaries are old. So if you support a candidate who is relying on the support of young people (Bernie Sanders, for instance) – actually showing up for the primaries is absolutely vital. 


A primary is an election, and it functions much like the big one in November. You cast a secret ballot, you pick who you want, and they tally the votes to determine delegates.

Google when your state primary vote is, or look it up on this confusing list. The candidate you want will never make it unless you turn out and vote – not just in the main election – but in the primaries as well.


A caucus is like the world’s worst class discussion. On a specific day day, you gather in a place with other voters from your district and discuss/debate the candidates. I’ve read this can sometimes last all day, sometimes going on into the night, and you can imagine how fun and exciting it is to listen to people argue about politics all day. At the end of the discussion, you vote on the candidates. It’s generally informal – a show of hands, or dividing into groups based on which candidate you want. They choose the delegates based on this vote.

Again – Google when your caucus is happening, or check out the confusing list. If you think people don’t turn out to vote, imagine how many are willing to spend all day arguing about who to vote for. If you are capable and care about what candidate makes it – show up. Bring a book. Bring friends. Do some research (or bring some tumblr/blog posts that captured your thoughts) and have something to say, if you’re up for public speaking. I 100% get if a physical, mental, monetary, or other issue prevents you from going. But if none of those issues are stopping you? Please participate. Especially if you live in Iowa.

What’s up with Iowa? And why are news channels reporting poll numbers NOW if all this stuff happens next year?

Iowa is a big fancy deal because their caucuses happen earliest in the year, before everyone else. They are the first real, official vote that happens. The earlier the state holds their primaries, the bigger deal it is, because… think about it. If you lose the first 5 or 6 states, you know you’re sinking fast. Lose enough states in the beginning and there’s no way you can pull ahead. A lot of candidates drop out of the race when it’s obvious they won’t make it. Why keep wasting money campaigning if you don’t even have a shot?

A lot of news places report on “the polls” long before anything official. This is a popularity poll – it’s not at all accurate. A lot of people say they’ll vote for a president (especially if “the poll” is on a website or twitter), but don’t actually show up to vote.

Being supportive of a candidate is not at all the same thing as actually voting for your candidate.

Republican primaries are a bit different

They have this “all or nothing” thing? and no math. And I didn’t really research them at all because I kind of don’t care.

I hope this helps some of you to understand wtf is going on right now. I had no idea about any of this this morning, and I’m sure a lot of you didn’t either! 


NOTE: I wanted to know how they work, so I read up on them for about five hours and asked questions of my state – Kansas’ – democratic party, but I am not at all an expert. I was just frustrated by the lack of any single organized article that described the process and details in a way I could understand. If you majored in this or know more than me, feel free to correct any of this! I will 100% not be offended, as I too want to know! I tried to use the simplest language possible just in case someone doesn’t know some of the terms. Let me know if anything is confusing!

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