Primaries: Complex and confusing


Monday, May 23 is the last day to register for California’s important June 7 primary election—important due to the decisive role primaries have in determining presidential and U.S. Senate candidates.  

California has semi-closed primaries, a confusing and complicated arrangement whose simplest rule is that if a voter is registered with a political party, she or he may vote for a candidate of that party. If you are a voter registered without any party affiliation, you can vote in the primary for a presidential candidate running in the Democratic, American Independent or Libertarian party by selecting the ballot of one of these three parties at your polling place or, if you vote by mail, by responding to the postcard sent from the County of Marin’s Election Office.

If you are registered to vote without party affiliation and you want to vote for a presidential candidate in the Republican, Green or Peace and Freedom party, you must re-register with that party by May 23. (Voters registered with the American Independent party are not unaffiliated or independent, and must re-register, if only temporarily, if they wish to vote for presidential or Senate candidates on another party’s ballot.)

Yes, complicated and confusing. Each of America’s 50 states sets its own voting rules, and primary election rules are particularly obtuse. Primary elections were not popular in the United States until the early 20th century and are not common among other democracies. Primaries were adopted to address the issue of political party bosses choosing candidates in “smoke-filled rooms” and were instituted here in order to give citizens a greater say in which candidates made it onto the general election ballot. 

As time progressed, primaries have gained great significance in deciding the ultimate outcome of general elections. Because of gerrymandering efforts (the periodic re-drawing of voting precincts by the two dominant political parties in order to benefit themselves), general elections are now largely decided based upon the outcome of primary elections. 

Yet many states’ primaries partially or entirely bar participation from unaffiliated (independent) voters, a voting bloc that is now a major force in America. Additionally, primaries elections, created by and for the Republican and Democratic parties, are funded by tax dollars paid by all Americans, including unaffiliated voters and non-voters whose interests are not represented. In short, it’s a modern version of “taxation without representation,” a popular slogan of the 1750s and 1760s that summarized a key grievance of the American colonists in the American Revolution.

According to the Independent Voter Project, 45 percent or more of all registered voters self-identify as independent voters. Among other resources, the project has created an informative and revealing video called “How Political Parties Rig Elections.” Search for it by name.

Voter registration can be accomplished online at, in 10 languages. Californians currently 17 years old who will be 18 by the Nov. 8 general election may register now to vote in the June primary.

Voters who have moved, even next door, down the street or to a different apartment within the same building, must re-register in order to vote. Voter registration is specific to the voter’s physical address—not their mailing address—and voters who have not re-registered at their new physical address by May 23 will be unable to vote in the June 7 primary.

If you are a voter who is uncertain whether you are registered, or with what political party you are registered, you can confirm your registration status at

Newly naturalized citizens living in Marin may register to vote, and vote, at the Marin County Elections Office beginning 14 days before the election and through 8 p.m. on Election Day. The Marin County Elections Office is located at 3501 Civic Center Drive, Room 121, San Rafael CA 94903. Its hours are 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, and on Election Day from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. The phone number is (415) 499.6456.

California offers three modes of voting: by mail, early in person and in person on Election Day. In order to vote in the June primary by mail, Californians must request a vote-by-mail ballot by May 31 and return the ballot by mail or in person on or before June 7. In order to vote early in person, Marin County voters may do so at the Elections Office beginning May 9. Polling places are open on Tuesday, June 7 from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Voters can find their polling place by calling (800) 345.VOTE (8683), by texting GOVOTE (468683), or visiting 

Finally, if a voter or potential voters wishes to support the presidential candidacy of independent (unaffiliated) Bernie Sanders, who is running on the Democratic party ballot, she or he must register with the Democratic party or as “no party preference” in order to receive a Democratic ballot.


Marc Matheson has been a registered Democrat since 1972 and will be re-registering as unaffiliated after the June primary. He lives in Inverness.