Voting in a Primary Election


people reviewing sample ballot and Voter Information Guide

Being registered with a political party will make a difference when you vote in a Presidential primary election, but in California, it will not make a difference when you vote in the statewide primary election for state constitutional, U.S. Congressional, and state legislative offices.


Presidential Primary

If you are registered to vote with a political party, you will be given a ballot for that party in a Presidential primary election.

If you are unaffiliated with any party (sometimes called “no party preference” or “decline to state”), you will be given a nonpartisan ballot. This ballot will only contain candidates running for voter-nominated offices or nonpartisan offices, and ballot measures to be voted on at the primary election.

Or, you may be able to request the ballot of one of the political parties at the polls or on your vote-by-mail ballot request form. Each political party has the option of allowing decline-to-state voters to vote in their Presidential primary.

California Statewide Primary

In June 2012, California started using the Top Two Candidate Open Primary system for statewide offices. 

  • All candidates for a given state or congressional office will be listed on a single Primary Election ballot.
  • Voters can vote for the candidate of their choice for these offices.
  • The top two candidates, as determined by the voters, will advance to the General Election in November.

History of California Statewide Primary Elections

Until 1996 a “closed” primary system governed California’s primary elections. In a “closed” primary system only voters registered in a political party could vote that party’s primary ballot. Unaffiliated (“no party preference” or “decline-to-state”) voters vote only on whatever measures and nonpartisan candidates were on the ballot.

This system was amended by the passage of Proposition 198 in March 1996 and changed to a “blanket” or “open” primary, in which any voter can vote for any candidate without declaring a party preference. In 1998 the United States Supreme Court declared California’s open primary system unconstitutional saying it violated a political party’s First Amendment right of association. The state reverted to using the closed primary system.

The closed primary system in California was amended in 2000 when Senate Bill 28 implemented a “modified” closed primary system, which permitted voters who declined to register with any political party to vote for a party’s candidates in a primary election if authorized by that party’s rules and duly noticed by the Secretary of State.

Current Statewide Primary Rules

California’s Top Two Primary System

Voters approved the Top Two Primary system for statewide offices in June 2010. With the Top Two Primary, all candidates running for office are listed on one ballot, regardless of their party preference. A candidate’s party has no impact on how the election is conducted or who is allowed to advance to the General Election. Instead, candidates go on to a run-off election based solely on how many votes they receive in the Primary.

The two candidates with the most votes qualify for the general election, hence the name “Top Two.”

  • It does not matter if one candidate receives a majority of the votes cast: the top two vote-getters always advance to the general election.
  • Even if only one or two candidates are running for a Top Two office, there will still be a primary election for that office.
  • Because candidates do not appear on the ballot representing a party, it is possible for two candidates from the same party to be the top two vote-getters and advance to the General Election.

The Top Two Primary applies to most of the offices that were previously known as “partisan” and are now known as “voter-nominated” offices. In California, these offices include:

  • United States Senators
  • Congressional Representatives
  • State Senators
  • Assembly members
  • Governor
  • Lt. Governor
  • State Treasurer
  • Secretary of State
  • State Attorney General.

The Top Two Primary does not apply to elections for:

  • President and Vice President, or
  • Political Party County Central Committees or County Councils

These offices are called “party-nominated” offices.

Write-in candidates for voter-nominated offices can still run in the primary election. However, a write-in candidate can only advance to the general election if the write-in candidate is one of the top two vote-getters in the primary.

The Secretary of State has posted a useful comparison of the new Top-Two system with the former “modified closed primary” system, including the change to “voter-nominated” offices rather than party-nominated offices and the elimination of write-in candidates in general elections. For the complete list of comparisons, please go to this link

How California Primary Elections Work

  • All voters can vote in a primary election.
  • Voting for President depends on the political party you are registered with, but for Governor and other offices, you are allowed to vote for any candidate from any political party.
  • Primary elections allow voters to choose candidates who will run against each other in general elections.
  • Primary elections are in either March (for President) or June (for Governor). General elections are in November.
  • You may see 3 types of primaries on your ballot. The way each primary works depends on the “office.”
Presidential Office bldg graphic

Presidential Office
Nominated by party

State Office bldg graphic

California Offices
Nominated by voters

County Office bldg graphic

County or Local Offices
Non-partisan candidates

Which offices are in each type of primary?

The candidate’s political party is always on the ballot.

The candidate’s party preference (or “None”) is always on the ballot.

The candidate’s party preference is never on the ballot.

U.S. President

Political parties also nominate candidates for County Central Committees and County Councils.

U.S. Senator
U.S. Representative
State Senator
State Assembly Member
Governor and Lt. Governor
Other state offices, including:
Treasurer; Secretary of State; Attorney General;
Controller; & Insurance Commissioner.

County Supervisor
Other county offices, including:
Sheriff; County Clerk & Recorder Assessor. Municipal Offices
School Districts
Superior Court Judges
State Superintendent of Public Instruction

Who can vote in each type of primary election?

Only voters who registered to vote with the same political party as the candidate can vote for these offices.  

If you registered with no party preference, then no candidates for these offices will be on your ballot.  

Some political parties will allow no party preference voters to request a primary ballot. Check here to see which allow it.  

But, if you want to vote for a party that won’t allow no party preference voters, then you must re-register to vote and select your choice of political party.

All voters can vote for any candidate running for these offices.    

All candidates from all parties will be on the ballot for these offices.

All voters can vote for any candidate running for these offices.

All candidates will be on the ballot for these offices.

What is the result of each type of primary election?

The winner of each party’s presidential primary will help determine who will represent that party in the general election.

The top two candidates with the most votes move on to the general election.  

They may have the same political party preference.

Candidates who receive at least 50% plus 1 vote are elected.  

Or, if no candidate wins, the two candidates with the most votes move on to the general election.

Want to share this information? Download our flyer on How California Primary Elections Work: The “Top-Two” System.

Read more about the “Top Two” Primary in California.

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