I was following online media during last year's primaries, and noticed anchors and commentators discussing people's "registration" as Democrats, Republicans or Independents (never for other parties though), as something determining which primaries they can vote in. They were not using the term "membership" in the different parties, and I got the impression that this is some sort of registration with state or federal authorities.

This sounded weird to me, since I'm used to the situation in which organizations (such as parties) keep their own membership record; and voting in inter-party elections is based on that registration and has nothing to do with state authorities.

So, is there really a difference between how you're "registered" to vote in primaries and your party membership? More specifically, what different duties and privileges do you have as a "registered Democrat"/"registered Republican" as opposed to a member of the state or the national Democratic or Republication party?

  • This seems like a diplicate (perhaps politics.stackexchange.com/questions/8802/… ? )
    – user4012
    Commented Feb 28, 2017 at 13:09
  • @user4012: That question focuses on the legitimacy of the "registered as X" mechanism, this one is about the details of the differences between being registered X and member of X.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Feb 28, 2017 at 18:21
  • @dan-klasson: Well, I don't know people here, but - downvoted answers are still answers.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Nov 12, 2017 at 18:42

3 Answers 3


The primary elections are carried out by the state. As a result, many states require that voters in the primary election officially register in that state as a member of the party to which they belong. In some states,only the Republican or Democratic parties have public primaries (as an example Kansas). In other states (such as New York) there are other parties that have primary elections through the state.

Since the registration is done through the state, the rules for registration and the methods are processed by the state.

Rules for Voting in a Primary Election

In a primary election, voters select the candidates who will represent each political party in the upcoming general election. But not everyone is eligible to vote in a primary election. Here is what you need to know before you vote.


To vote in a primary election, you must register in your district at least 30 days before the primary election. Each state has different requirements, however, so be sure to check your state's Division of Elections well in advance of the next primary.

Open Primary

Several states, such as Arkansas, Idaho and South Carolina, have open primaries. In an open primary, voters can vote in either party's primary regardless of their own party affiliation. They may only vote in one party's primary, however, not both.

Closed Primary

In a closed primary, voters may only vote for a candidate in the party with which they have registered. So, for example, only registered Democrats may vote in the Democratic primary, and only registered Republicans may vote in the Republican primary. Voters who have not declared a political party are not eligible to vote in either primary. States with closed primaries include Connecticut, Florida, and Maryland.

  • 6
    Maybe worth also adding that primaries are not officially part of the American election cycle and are essentially run by semi-private organizations. As such it is not even always required for a state to have a primary (ie Colorado for the 2016 race did not have a primary on the R side). Commented Feb 28, 2017 at 0:29
  • @DavidGrinberg That's a good point, the Republicans also didn't have a caucus in North Dakota in 2016.
    – JonK
    Commented Feb 28, 2017 at 2:47
  • 1
    @DavidGrinberg: How does that square with sabbahillel saying they're run by the state?
    – einpoklum
    Commented Feb 28, 2017 at 6:58
  • @sabahillel: Ok, but what about actually being a member of the party? What does that typically mean?
    – einpoklum
    Commented Feb 28, 2017 at 6:58
  • 1
    @DavidGrinberg: So, I don't quite understand what that means. Do party officials, or state officials, run the primaries?
    – einpoklum
    Commented Nov 10, 2017 at 15:56

This sounded weird to me, since I'm used to the situation in which organizations (such as parties) keep their own membership record; and voting in inter-party elections is based on that registration and has nothing to do with state authorities.

Rules differ by state in the United States (US), but in general, the state runs primaries which choose the two major party candidates. These are publicly financed. They may or may not be limited to people who are registered to vote as a member of that party (if the state even has party registration, not every state does). If not limited to one party, sometimes it is limited from the other party.

The major parties (Republicans and Democrats) are privileged in the United States. The winners of their primaries (first round) automatically get a position in the general election (second round). Most other parties have to pay for their own candidate selection process and have to get each candidate listed manually. There generally is a process by which they get signatures. Enough valid signatures and they get ballot access.

In addition to that, people can run for party positions. These often occur as part of larger elections, run by the state. Often there will only be one candidate for such a position, so the "election" is somewhat moot. Other times, these are picked by caucuses. Caucuses may be run by the parties, although there are also caucuses that substitute for primaries and are state funded (e.g. Iowa).

Most of this was originally a combination of cost-saving and anti-corruption measures with the convenient side-effect that it reinforced the two-party hegemony.

It has also produced a system where the two major parties are part of the system. They can't pick their nominees freely because each state has rules about how nominees are chosen. Because the state rules control ballot access, they also control the party process.

In theory, a major party could organize itself as a purely private entity and control its nomination process. But then the party would lose its automatic ballot access. It would become like the Libertarians and the Greens, where it would have to gain ballot access by collecting signatures. In districts (congressional or statewide for Senators and presidential candidates) that did not collect enough signatures, the candidate would not appear on the ballot.

As a practical matter, both major parties prefer their privileged status to having the freedom to choose. This may change, as in the last primary season, one party was dominated by an independent who had been a reality television star while the other saw a strong insurgency from an independent who made a career out of being a gadfly. Perhaps this will lead to reform of the process.

More specifically, what different duties and privileges do you have as a "registered Democrat"/"registered Republican" as opposed to a member of the state or the national Democratic or Republication party?

Registration is an official action. The effect varies by state. In a closed primary state, people can only vote in primaries if their party registration matches the primary. In some states, independents can choose a primary in which to vote but Democrats and Republicans are restricted. Other states are open primaries, where registration doesn't matter.

In New York, voters are limited to just their own party's primary, but a candidate can run under multiple party lines and in the general election the party results are combined (fusion). In California, party registration only matters for president (other primaries are non-partisan), but the Republican party primary is closed while the Democratic primary is open. In both states, the primaries are state run affairs and limit what candidates can appear in the general election (except for president, which has its own goofy rules).

Kentucky, Louisiana, and West Virginia are generally considered Republican states. They voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump for president (and previously Romney, McCain, and Bush). They have mostly Republican congressional delegations. But they are majority Democrat in registration (technically Louisiana is only a plurality, but with a 19% lead).

"Member" is an amorphous term. It could mean party registration. Or it could mean donations. Or it could mean that they answered a poll saying that they preferred a particular party. Or it could mean that they have a formal party position, like a delegate. I've seen it used in each of these ways. Without additional context, "member" doesn't tell you anything.

Note that when people talk about party registration in the US, it is registration with the state. The two major parties in the US are not private organizations, free to choose however they want. They are officially recognized parts of how the system works. Each state sets its own rules for elections and such elections control the party process as well.

The parties could give up that status. But if they did, they would lose the funding that went with it. They could choose their own nominees but they would have to pay for the process for doing so. And they'd have to get their nominees on the ballot through their own actions. They choose not to do so.

The two major parties in the US are not private organizations. They are quasi-governmental organizations (contested). They enjoy privileges not available to purely private organizations. For example, their nominee selection is state funded. And they have to accept the rules set by the individual states that come with that funding. For example, the party nominee is the person selected by a plurality of those voting in the party primary or through a state approved caucus.

Some would like to argue that "quasi-governmental organizations" is not the right description. But the fact remains that even if the parties can choose their nominees by a process other than the person selected by voters, it doesn't matter. The person who appears on the ballot as the party's nominee will still be the person selected by voters. Because that's how the state determines ballot access. And ballot access is naturally within the purview of the states unless they delegate to the parties.

The "party" primary is a state election. Note how Louisiana, Washington, and California don't have party primaries. Their processes just select the top two, possibly of the same party. Presumably the parties could have separate nomination processes there, although they have not yet chosen to do so.

  • How can the rule be decide by the state? A political party - not being controlled by the state - can adopt whichever way it likes to select candidates for elections (including a random draw among willing members) - couldn't it?
    – einpoklum
    Commented Nov 10, 2017 at 15:57
  • @einpoklum The parties are controlled by the state, through state election law. If the law says that candidates have to fulfil certain criteria (such as selection method), then the parties have to meet them, or win a legal battle.
    – origimbo
    Commented Nov 10, 2017 at 18:10
  • @origimbo: And state laws forbid something like, say, random draw? Or member with first name in dictionary sort order? Or oldest member? etc.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Nov 10, 2017 at 22:47
  • @einpoklum The USA is really, really federal, so the answer to that will vary a bit. As Brythan's answer now points out, a couple of states effectively say anyone who can meet the nomination criteria can stand in a nonpartisan primary election. If you want to look up the details state by state, thegreenpapers.com has a lot of useful links.
    – origimbo
    Commented Nov 11, 2017 at 0:03
  • Your assertion that the Democratic and Republican parties are not private but privileged semi-official organisations and that they have privileged status compared to other parties require references. This is the first I've heard of it in several decades of following US politics.
    – phoog
    Commented Nov 11, 2017 at 15:24

Some states, like Colorado, have caucuses in addition to primary elections. Anyone registered with the political party may attend in person, usually at a school or a church or a library or someone's house.

Caucuses are organized by precinct, each of which would typically have a few thousand people, of whom a few hundred would typically be registered in any given political party. In a slow year, half a dozen people might show up. In a Presidential election year, it could be a hundred.

A caucus nominates delegates to the next level of the nomination process, typically at the county/state legislative district level (eventually nominating candidates for almost all political offices, but sometimes sending a contest between a few candidates who get comparable support in the caucus process to a primary election), suggests items for planks in the party platform, and also elects precinct committee members who are charged with running caucuses, with distributing literature, to electing people to higher offices within the political party organization, and, in Colorado to voting in all vacancy elections for elected officials from the party whose districts include that precinct. So, in Colorado, if there is a horrible scandal, members of one's own party try to get you to resign, rather than the members of the other party, so that the tarnished candidate can be replaced with a party loyalist.

Thus, while at one level everyone who registerers with a party is a member, in other ways, only people who are precinct committee people or hold higher offices either in the government or in a political party, are actively participating members of the party who carry out its day to day business.

Many states have weaker parties that have less of a role in nominating and filling vacancies in public offices. But, almost all have some way of selecting precinct officers for the party and they are really the truly active members of the party rather than its merely nominal members.

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