What Is a Direct Primary Election?

by David B. Ryan

Until the early 20th century, candidates for most elections were chosen by the power brokers of each political party. The catchphrase for this secretive nomination process was "the smoke-filled room," which conjures up images of cigar-chomping party elders haggling over who was to be offered as the party's choice for voters. The rank-and-file party members had no say in the process, and in the general election, the voting public was reduced to an often unsatisfactory choice between handpicked candidates. The lack of transparency in the candidate selection process perpetuated the nomination of privileged or well-connected politicians, denied entry to newcomers and opened the door to all varieties of graft, corruption and cronyism. Direct primary elections, in which voters in each party choose their candidates at the ballot box, were established as part of a strategy to reform society and make government more accountable to citizens.


The Progressive movement that arose in the late 19th century sought "good government" through breaking up business monopolies or "trusts" while fostering the rise of labor unions. The leading figure of the Progressives was president Theodore Roosevelt, who took office in 1901. Direct primaries had been advocated throughout the 19th century, but were not successfully adopted wholesale by any state.

The Father of the Direct Primary

The establishment of direct primaries in America is credited to Robert LaFollette, who served as governor of Wisconsin from 1901-1906 and U.S. senator from 1906-1925. In 1902, LaFollette pushed for creation of a Wisconsin direct primary provision and vetoed any legislation to the contrary. After a Wisconsin Supreme Court decision favorable to LaFollette's cause, the state's voters passed the nation's first direct primary law by a huge margin on May 23, 1903.

Adoption in Other States

With Progressive ideals in play under President Teddy Roosevelt, many other states followed Wisconsin in passing their own direct primary laws. Before the end of World War I, only four states of the Union had not passed legislation requiring a direct primary.

Open Primaries Now Universal

Today, every state in the U.S. has direct primaries, limiting the control of political machines and increasing the transparency of the electoral process. The process in many states was contentious, with many opponents critically appraising the effect of direct primaries for years afterward.

U.S. is Unique in the World

The United States is the only democracy in the world today that uses direct primaries as a permanent part of the nomination process for all political parties in all states. The parties in other democratic nations continue to choose their own candidates through different means.

About the Author

David B. Ryan has been a professional writer since 1989. His work includes various books, articles for "The Plain Dealer" in Cleveland and essays for Oxford University Press. Ryan holds degrees from the University of Cincinnati and Indiana University and certifications in emergency management and health disaster response.

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