U.S. election: What's a primary anyway, and why does it matter?

For Canadians accustomed to electing their federal government on an election day that rolls around once every four years, the prolonged presidential election process south of the border may seem confusing.

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As both Democratic and Republican presidential hopefuls focus on the New Hampshire primaries on Tuesday, CTVNews.ca takes a closer look at the voting process and its part in the U.S. presidential election.

What are primaries?

In an election year, U.S. states hold either primaries or caucuses in which registered voters choose nominees to attend the national party conventions where the presidential candidates will be selected.

Most U.S. states hold primaries -- a statewide process of selecting delegates through a secret ballot.

Primaries rely on a traditional ballot system that would be familiar to Canadian voters.

During an open primary, held in 19 states, including Texas and Virginia, voters can cast ballots for a candidate from any political party.

In a closed primary, individuals can vote only for a candidate representing the political party to which they belong. For example, a voter who registered as a Republican can only vote in the Republican primary.

Most U.S. states hold closed primaries.

What are caucuses?

Caucuses are more akin to public meetings, that include speeches and debates before the voting takes place.

Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Kansas, Maine, Minnesota, Nevada, North Dakota, Wyoming and Iowa are the only states to rely solely on the caucus voting format.

Caucuses allow participants to openly show support for candidates, and voting is often done by raising hands. Typically, registered voters can only participate in the caucus that they’re affiliated to.

Why are Iowa and New Hampshire so important?

Iowa, which uses a caucus system, and New Hampshire, which holds primaries, are the first states to vote in a presidential election year. In these races, candidates can either gain momentum or decide whether it's time to bow out of the race.

In the last 10 New Hampshire primaries, the winner of the Republican race went on to become the eventual nominee eight times. On the Democratic side, seven winners went on to become the party's presidential candidate.


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