A blanket primary is a primary election whereby each voter can select one candidate per office regardless of party. This primary is different from open or closed primaries, which require each ballot to only feature votes for candidates from one party.
Origins and History
In a blanket partisan primary, one candidate from each ballot-qualified party is guaranteed a spot in the general election. The terms blanket primary and jungle primary are often conflated; however, a jungle primary guarantees general election spots to the top two candidates of any party.
Supporters of the blanket primary suggest that it reduces partisanship by allowing voters to avoid party registration. Voters in a blanket primary can stay independent, nonpartisan, or unaffiliated without sacrificing their say in elections. Blanket primaries also allow voters from one party to select candidates from opposing parties as protests or out of concern about candidate qualifications.
Opponents of the blanket primary argue that primaries are selection processes dictated by parties rather than state governments. Parties are also concerned that protest voters warp the selection process, undermining voter options in the general election.
As of February 2020, no states used the blanket primary system. Three states – Alaska, California, and Washington – used this system In the 20th century. Alaska voters approved the blanket primary in 1947. In 1996, Californians approved a switch from a closed primary to a blanket primary through Proposition 198. The Washington State Legislature approved a legislatively-referred initiative authorizing the blanket primary in 1935.
The California Democratic, Republican, Libertarian, and Peace and Freedom Parties sued the state to overturn Proposition 198. In 2000, a 7-2 majority of the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the blanket primary was unconstitutional in California Democratic Primary v. Jones. The majority opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia argued that state government should not influence the intraparty selection of candidates.
Alaska abided by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, converting its 2000 primary election into a primary determined by each party. The Alaska Supreme Court previously ruled in 1996 that the blanket primary was constitutional, which was not heard by the highest court in the country. This system was briefly replaced by open primaries from 1960 to 1967 and 1992 to 1996.
The Washington State Democratic Party sued to overturn its state’s blanket primary after the California decision. A federal appeals court ruled in 2003 that the primary system was unconstitutional in compliance with California Democratic Primary v. Jones. California and Washington later moved to top-two jungle primaries for state and federal elections.
Las Vegas Review-Journal (February 4, 2020): “The proposal, which was submitted to the Nevada secretary of state’s office Friday by state Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, would create a blanket primary system for partisan races in which all candidates, regardless of their party affiliation, would appear on the ballot.”
The Brookings Institution (October 10, 2014): “A central argument in favor of the blanket primary system is that it gives third-party candidates more of a chance to make it to Congress.”
The Spokesman-Review (October 22, 2004): “The majority of voters seemed peeved that the old blanket primary had been dumped, but predictions of a low turnout were overblown.”