What the Gov: If I Voted Republican in a Primary, Can I Vote Democrat in the General?

Illinois primary elections force voters to ask for a partisan ballot. From primaries to the general in November, here’s what you should know about party identification and voting.

This article is part of a series called "What the Gov," where BGA Engagement Editor Mia Sato takes reader questions related to Illinois government and upcoming elections and tracks down the answers. Ask your own question here.

Voters hear a lot about party politics at all levels of government, from Congress all the way down to local municipal elections. Some voters align closely with a party and others cast their vote on a case-by-case basis. But how does party identification impact how you can vote? Several readers were stumped.

Cynthia Mosley, a retired Chicago Public Schools teacher living on Chicago’s Southside, is one of them. She remembers her mother didn't vote in the primaries because it meant saying aloud to a poll worker which party’s ballot she wanted. Cynthia wondered why voters have to declare a party to vote in the primary.

Another reader was thinking forward: could she could vote for any party’s candidates in the general, or did she have to be registered with that party?

We’re just a few weeks out from the November election and voters have a lot of questions both about the systems Illinois has and how it plays out in the voting process. Here’s what you should know.

Confused about November? Here’s the deal

In the general election on Nov. 6, all voters will see the same candidates listed for statewide offices — the politicians from all parties who advanced from the primary election, as well as any third party candidates who've filed after the primaries. You can vote for whomever you’d like, regardless of the party with which you self-identify. You also aren’t required to vote for the candidates or party you selected back in the March primary (assuming you voted!)

The general election allows voters to choose candidates from multiple parties for different positions. Think the Republican would make a good governor, but prefer the Democratic candidate for attorney general? Go for it. (By the way, you can preview and build your general ballot ahead of time with Illinois Votes).

Illinois used to have straight-ticket voting, which allowed voters to select a party’s entire slate of candidates across all offices with the push of a button. The legislature outlawed that in 1997, but you can still replicate the experience if you want — it’s just more cumbersome.

But to understand how your final ballot came to be, we need to step back and look at the primary process that got us here.

This is how we do it

When Illinoisans register to vote, they don’t declare a party (and there is no such thing as an Independent party in Illinois). Voters are considered unaffiliated until they vote in a primary, which is an election that narrows down the candidate pool for each office to one candidate per party (except in a few rare circumstances — more on that later.) The winners in each party move on to the general election.

But before casting a primary vote, Illinois voters have to ask a poll worker, out loud, for a Democratic or Republican (or sometimes a Green or Libertarian) ballot, each of which contains only the corresponding party’s candidates. That meant that a primary voter last March, if she was so inclined, could not have cast a vote for Republican Bruce Rauner in the governor’s race and then jumped over to the Democratic contest for attorney general to vote for Kwame Raoul.

In the November vote, however, the same voter could pick Rauner and Raoul, or for that matter Democrat J.B. Pritzker in the governor’s race and Republican Erika Harold in the attorney general’s contest.

And just an FYI: in Illinois, primary election voting history is publicly available. Partisan groups and political operatives can’t see who you voted for, but they do have access to information on which party ballot you pulled. Primary voters do have the option of requesting a nonpartisan ballot, but be aware: it is stripped of all the marquee races and generally limits you to voting just on referendums.

Unfortunately for folks who feel the same as the question-askers who inspired this story, publicly asking for a ballot seems like a system that’s here to stay. But not every state runs primaries this way, and some have systems that get closer to what Cynthia’s mother might have liked.

To party or not to party

I moved from Wisconsin to Illinois a year ago knowing party politics ran deep, especially in Cook County. Even so, I wasn’t prepared for what happened when I went to my polling place in March to vote in the primaries:

POLL WORKER: Which ballot would you like?

ME: Uhh… the one that I vote on?

This wasn’t the norm for me, but after doing some digging, it turns out primary systems can vary widely from state to state.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, primary election systems across the United States shake out like this:

  • Open primaries: Any voter can vote in any race, regardless of party affiliation, which is kept private. Fifteen states use this system.
  • Open primaries (to unaffiliated voters): As above but only for voters not registered with any party. Everyone else votes only in their party’s primary. Nine states have this kind of primary race.
  • Partially open primaries: An open primary, but voters must publicly declare what ballot they want. Sound familiar? Six states including Illinois use this system.
  • Partially closed primaries: Each party picks their primary structure each year, allowing them to limit who gets access to their ballot based on affiliation or lack thereof. Seven states have this kind of primary.
  • Closed primaries: Voters have to be registered with a party to vote. Independents or unaffiliated voters are excluded. Nine states have closed primaries.
  • Top-two or “jungle” primaries: Not only the best named but also the most distinct. One party-blind ballot lists all candidates. In this free-for-all, the two candidates who get the most votes in each race battle it out in the general. Only four states use this system.

Who gets a say?

Some say the stricter primary systems restrict whose voice can be part of the democratic process and are therefore undemocratic. Parties can block who participates in primaries, or systems force voters to publicly identify with a party.

But Laurel Harbridge-Yong, associate professor of political science at Northwestern University, says the argument for limiting voting to party members makes sense — those who align with a party should get to choose the issues and candidates who represent them.

“To people who study political parties… It’s actually quite shocking to think that you would even have something like open primaries,” Harbridge-Yong says. “Taken in a different context, the question would be, “Why should someone who’s not a Methodist be able to help pick the priest at a Methodist congregation?” Of course, it would be the people that are part of that denomination or that group who are the ones that are selecting their leader.”

In June, the BGA Policy team had John Opdycke, president of Open Primaries, as a guest on the BGA podcast (listen here). Opdycke advocates for primary reform across the country, and said efforts are underway in 15 or 20 states to attempt to change primary systems.

“There's a lot of momentum, there's a lot of activity,” Opdycke said. “And yet this movement is still very underdeveloped, very young and the opposition comes from both political parties.”

And in Illinois?

“The legislature is not at all interested in this issue. I mean to say, that a bill would go nowhere is an understatement,” Opdycke said. Welp.

Next time an Illinois primary rolls around, you’ll have to weigh for yourself whether disclosing your party is worth it in order to have a say on who makes it to the general. But Illinoisans — particularly independents, who elsewhere are barred from primaries completely — do have some privileges not afforded to other Americans. As Nicki Minaj once said, TO (some) FREEDOM!!!