It seems strange that a country like the USA that has anonymous voting has the government knowing if you are a member of a political party: " In many states, election officials disclose how many Democrats and Republicans have voted thus far. We don't know who they're voting for, but in most states, this alignment is a good proxy for the candidates."

Why is this considered acceptable in the US where distrust of the government is rampart (ie. no national government ID)?

  • 2
    I think you are misreading that quote, election officials know how many Democrats and Republicans have voted thus far because they have access to the actual votes, that's what election officials are for.
    – yannis
    Commented Dec 5, 2012 at 9:08
  • @YannisRizos: "We don't know who they're voting for, but in most states, this alignment is a good proxy for the candidates" - It seems like they know how many registered Democrats and Republicans have voted
    – Casebash
    Commented Dec 5, 2012 at 9:09
  • The lack of federal IDs in the United States is a lot more complicated than just distrust of government. Commented Feb 12, 2016 at 1:33
  • It seems odd that party affiliation would be accessible to front line officials, what does that help and would seem to lend itself to the 'wrong' voters get what ever interference is available.
    – user9389
    Commented Jan 19, 2017 at 20:59

4 Answers 4


It is important to note here that political parties in the U.S. are unlike political parties in most other countries.

An important point regarding your question is that there is a form of affiliation unlike being a dues-paying "member". This sort of affiliation is declared with the same institution where one registers to vote, possibly even in the same process. (Note: wikipedia says "in many states".) This is relevant as the primaries in the state may be organized by those that also organize the actual election, but primaries actually determine the candidate running under the respective party label and may be restricted to voters registered for (a) the respective party or (b) at least no other party.

I am also not sure whether this affiliation information is actually "public", but at least it is known to the election officials the same way it is known to them whether, for example, the voter lives in the north or south of the electoral district.

  • 5
    It's public information. You can access a copy of the electoral register, and parties do so routinely as part of their campaigning. Commented Jan 18, 2013 at 14:12

In some states only "registered" memebers can vote in primary elections.

Primary election select the only candidate from one party (Dem or Rep), which will face primary winner of the other party in General election. State primaries are not on the same date, but are staggered. traditionally, earliest primaries are Iowa (caucus) and New Hampshire (more traditional elections).

So i.e. in 2008, after McCain won Republican primaries by winning many early-voting states, many Republicans in Ohio re-registered as Democrats (Operation Chaos), to vote for Hillary Clinton, with goal to extend Dem's primaries and create bad blood, with the hope to make Obama's general elections more complicated. It worked other way around, forced him to build strong campaigns also is states with late primaries, contributing to his 2008 victory.

Other states have "open" primaries, where anyone can vote for any candidate (but only for one party, Rep or Dem). But primaries are independent between parties, and sometimes Rep and Dem primary elections are not even on the same day.

Party registration information is public, but not free. You have to pay to get it. Some organizations routinely do it, i.e. for fundraising. In 2004 primaries, private citizens ("Draft Clark" movement) in Iowa pooled money and got that info for democratic caucus, because they wanted to caucus for Clark, even if Clark'04 campaign itself skipped Iowa caucuses.


The U.S. is one of a few nations where there is a popular vote to elect candidates in political party primaries. In most other countries, party leaders vet the candidates.

Scholars differentiate primaries into several general categories: Closed, Semi-closed, Open, Semi-open, Blanket, Nonpartisan, Unified

However, even these broad categories cannot adequately explain the nuances that exist between primaries in the various states.

The U.S. Constitution originally only declared that no religious test could be applied to a holder of public office. Otherwise, voter qualification was entirely up to the states to decide. Over time, federal law and six Constitutional Amendments (14, 15, 19, 23, 24, and 26) addressed the right to vote. However, there remains broad discretion at the state level.

Political parties have exerted their power to control who votes in primaries, up to and including successful lawsuits. It is truly odd when the major political parties SUE for THEIR rights, but that is the current state of America today and for some time into the past.



  • This is a informative answer, but it doesn't actually explain why party choice is public knowledge, so it's not a good answer for this question.
    – Bobson
    Commented Nov 23, 2014 at 18:09
  • My answer speaks directly to the question. It's not as simple as the question implies. Depending upon the type of primary, and the laws implementing, one does not need to declare party affiliation, and even if one does it only lasts until the next election. If one has to declare oneself a member of Party X in 2014 in order to vote in the Party X primary, one can declare oneself a member of Party Y in 2016. This presupposes that the laws do not change in the intervening years, or there's no lawsuit and a decision.
    – Kennah
    Commented Nov 24, 2014 at 4:59
  • In a concise direct answer to the question, where Political Party membership is public it's because the major Political Parties want membership to be public so they've gone to court to see that it is public.
    – Kennah
    Commented Nov 24, 2014 at 5:00
  • "The U.S. is one of a few nations where there is a popular vote to elect candidates in political party primaries." Bernie Sanders was winning the popular vote by most polls, yet Hillary Clinton won the democratic primary.
    – crush
    Commented Jun 28, 2016 at 15:15

Here is one idea - making this information public may discourage membership in stigmatized third parties. Who would want to be publicly known to be voting in Communist primaries?

  • 1
    Could you flesh this answer out? Since the creation of US primaries preceded the modern establishment of secret ballots; you could be right that public ballots was initially considered more desirable. Indeed ballot secrecy is a mostly modern phenomenon; although I can't seem to find a decent article for the rationale of earlier public voting styles. Commented Nov 23, 2014 at 0:49
  • @LateralFractal - Secret ballots aren't all that recent. Your own link says that every state had converted by 1892. The modern primary system dates from 1972.
    – Bobson
    Commented Nov 23, 2014 at 18:02
  • @Bobson You are referring to binding primaries. I guess I meant national conventions and party membership in general, which predated US implementation of secret ballots by about half a century. In any case, the sentiment that drove public voting belongs to an older civic tradition; for which open political allegiance was considered a virtue of an open society and polarisation was an irreducible aspect not worth rectifying. Commented Nov 23, 2014 at 21:46

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