How does registering to vote work in the USA?

I have seen numerous occasions when people have mentioned that they have registered as a Democrat, Republican, Independant and so on. In this post
** Guinastasia** said

It appears to me that in order to register to vote you have to say which party you plan to vote for. Obviously this can’t be right (at least I hope not :slight_smile: ). can somebody explain what it means when you register as a Democrat, Republic or Whatever and why you have to do this.


In general the reason for putting down party affiliation is to decide what parties primaries you get to vote in.

In Texas, you do not declare your affiliation: . At least, not anymore. I have vague memories of my parents cards listing their affiliation when I was very young.
One official reason for declaring your affiliation is to determine which primary you are to vote in – the idea being that if you were a member of Party D, you wouldn’t sabotage Party R’s primary, or vice versa. I know that in Texas now, you can only vote in one primary, but you pick which one at the time, so you can change your mind from election to election.

But that’s not a national thing. We don’t have national elections. For example in Michigan, I don’t specify a party affiliation. Our primaries are open. I can vote in whichever one I want (but not all/both of them).

Illinois is another of the states in which you cannot “register” under a particular party affiliation. When you show up at a primary election (i.e., the various parties are narrowing down their candidates for office), you simply tell the election official which party’s ballot you wish to vote on. You could then, for example, be a Democrat but vote for desireable/undesireable Republicans on a Republican ballot. For a regular election, you are given a ballot with all of the available candidates regardless of party, and can vote for whomever you wish.

The Primary is where you get to vote for the person who will lead your party in the Presidential elections. Is this correct?


In any race, actually - Senate, House of Representatives, Governor, and so forth. The winners for each party face off in another election, held later on (months, typically).

In Virginia, you register by party, or independant, but if you register as an independant, you don’t get to vote in any primaries! Silly, but not the silliest of all our quaint laws, here in the home of the Bill of Rights.


So far everyone’s skipped a step.

Zerc, in the U.S. most elections are two-tiered. The ultimate election is open to anyone who can qualify, but usually the only serious candidates are the Democratic nominee and the Republican nominee. Before you get to that stage, you have to pick your nominee. If you remember what was going on in the U.S. a year ago, this will make sense – John Kerry, John Edwards, Howard Dean, Dennis Kucinich and a handful of others were all running against each other in the Democratic primary to be the nominee. The way that works is that each state has a primary (or caucus) and the better you do in them, the more delegates you have at the end of the process. These delegates then formally vote for you to be the nominee at the Convention in the fall.

So the idea is that you can vote for anyone in the general election, but you can only vote in one primary – so you can register to vote in the Republican primary or the Democratic primary, but not both. As noted above, many states these days allow you to pick a primary the day of and to switch primaries every election, but in other states you have to register for the primary you want to vote in and, if your political views change so that you want to change primaries, you have to change your registration beforehand.


Rules regarding registration and the implications of that vary fairly widely from state to state. In some states the number or percentage of registered voters who select a party affiliation changes the qualifiing criteria for who gets ballot access in an election.

This is probably shocking to a lot of non-Americans, but most states have a very vigorous set of ballot access rules which require the gathering of thousands of signatures of voters to allow a non-major party candidate on the ballot. In most states for most offices, simply getting your name on the ballot is the hardest thing you can do. (I have personal experience of this having run for offiice in 2004.) The vast majority of seats have only two candidates running for them in a general election, and in many cases (due to gerrymandering, another topic entirely…) there is literally only one candidate for an office in locales where one party is much stronger than the other. The vast majority of House of Representatives races are won so heavily by one candidate owing to gerrymandering that we can say there’s usually one “serious” candidate in each district.

Of course in a lot of places in the world the whole concept of having register ahead of time to vote is equally foreign (literally).

Unfortunately the US has a long history of erecting articifial barriers to who can vote and who can gain ballot access in ways that are likely hard to understand for people in other democracies.

Although for most races Gerrymandering isn’t an issue. Most offices are local. Thus in say a city council position in a heavily urbanized city with mostly non-white voters, the real election is the Democrat primary. The general election is just a rubber stamp.

That last part is true, but gerrymandering plays a role in that as well. I don’t know how things are done in Michigan, but here we have gerrymandered State Representative and State Senate seats which combine parts of the city with parts of the suburbs and the redistricting of those is heavily contested because that’s what decides the elections. Even within the city the non-At-Large City Council seats are gerrymandered by ethnicity and income. And of course at the national level the House of Representatives districts snake in and out of the city.

The only seats in which gerrymandering doesn’t play a role here are the city-wide (mayor, city controller, DA, At-Large council, sheriff, judges) seats and the state-wide ones (US Senate, Gov, Lt. Gov, State Treasurer, judges, US President).

This must all be horribly confusing for foreign readers - sorry!

Like most Americans, I learned about the origins of the word ‘gerrymander’ in jr. hich school. I wonder how widespread the term is outside of the U.S.? Is it something people in England, say, would know without having to look it up? Do other countries have a their own words for this practice?

A New Yorker chiming in. If you register as “independent” here, you are excluded from Primary voting (similar to other states).

That’s not true anymore, and it hasn’t been for at least six years, when I registered to vote in Virginia. There’s no space on the Virginia registration for party affiliation, and anyone can vote in either of the primaries (but if you vote in one, you’re supposed to sign an oath saying you won’t vote in the other).

I cannot speak for anyplace else, but here in Canada, the word gerrymander is certainly used and understood.

I, for one, am not quite sure what it means. Can someone define it?

One point of confusion… you say that the primaries are those elections where the political parties’ candidates for the final election are chosen. Is that choice not limited to the members of the parties?

In Canada, the the choice of leader (or even method of choosing a leader) of a political party is up to the party concerned. It has nothing to do with the final election mechanism at all.

Is the primary registration esentially where you choose to join a political party?

Gerrymandering is the process whereby the party in power manipulates the borders of voting districts to demographically favor their own party.

Wikipedia article