A firehouse primary is a candidate nominating contest funded and overseen by a local party organization rather than public election officials.
A standard primary is operated by county and state election officials who are not affiliated with any party. Firehouse primaries are used to determine local, county, and state candidates for general elections in lieu of standard primaries and party conventions. Parties use this primary method to handle nominations without convention floor votes or debates. A firehouse primary allows the sponsoring party to experiment with voting methods and ensure compliance with party rules.
The firehouse primary is sometimes referred to as a mass canvass, a party canvass, or a firehouse caucus. This primary form takes place in a variety of locations including schools, fire stations, and churches.
William Safire detailed the origins of firehouse primary in a 2008 On Language article for the New York Times. Safire found a secondhand reference to the phrase dating to a 1975 article in The Washington Post. This reference mentioned the open aspect of this primary with voters casting ballots at tables instead of booths. Safire’s firsthand research discovered firehouse primary’s print debut in a Washington Times article from 1990.
The firehouse primary is most often associated with the state of Virginia. Google Trends shows that Virginia was the lone state to show search interest in the term between 2004 and 2020. The Republican Party of Virginia includes firehouse primaries as one of several nominating options in its Handbook for Mass Meetings, Conventions and Party Canvasses. The Democratic Party of Virginia featured sample rules for a firehouse primary in its 2016 local elections handbook including the following:
- A four-hour window for votes starting at noon
- Certification by each voter of voter and party registration along with a promise not to vote for a candidate outside of the party
- Using a coin flip to resolve tied votes after canvassing
Virginia may have popularized firehouse primaries but at least one state adopted this method for its 2020 Democratic presidential primary. The rules for the firehouse caucus held by the North Dakota Democratic Party included a pledge of support for the party’s candidates. This caucus represented a significant switch from the 2016 caucuses that required multiple rounds of preference votes. State parties in Alaska and Kansas also adopted the firehouse caucus format for their 2020 presidential nominating contests.
Virginia Mercury (June 6, 2019): “The local Republican committee in Hanover decided to cancel a party convention in favor of a mass canvass, or firehouse primary.”
The Harrisonburg Citizen (April 27, 2019): “The firehouse primary finished off an eight-week sprint of a campaign for the trio of Republicans since Landes announced March 5 that he wouldn’t run.”
NBC 4 Washington (January 24, 2014): “Northern Virginia Republicans opted to run a firehouse primary to choose a nominee in the 10th Congressional District, where Republican Frank Wolf is retiring after 34 years.”