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Elections: Primary vs. General
One area of confusion for many first-time or even seasoned voters is the difference between the primary and general elections. An easy way to think about it is to imagine the primary election as a first step on the path to the general election. As the 2010 midterm election season heats up, we are now about halfway through the various primary battles happening across the country. Primary elections allow us as voters to decide the candidates that will go on to represent their political parties in the November general election.
In a primary election, Republicans run against other Republicans and Democrats against other Democrats. Additionally, if other parties---such as Independent or Green Party---qualify to appear on primary ballots, their respective candidates would also run against each other. Unlike a general election, voters who participate in primary elections may not split their ballot between various parties---they must only vote for one political party or the other. In addition, primary elections are held on a state-by-state basis, usually beginning in late spring or early summer and running through early fall, whereas the general election is held on the same day across the country.
Though sometimes overlooked in the grand scheme of the election season, primary elections play an important role in determining the political landscape for the general elections in November. In fact, in states and districts that tend to vote overwhelmingly in favor of one political party, primary elections often play an even more important role than the general election itself. This is because if a particular state, city, or jurisdiction is not competitive between political parties---meaning it almost always votes either Republican or Democrat---then the winner of the primary election for whichever party maintains control will more than likely go on to win in the general election. In this case, participating in the primary election is critical if you want your vote to be counted and your voice to be heard.
Once all the primaries have been held, then election season is truly in full swing as the winners of the primary elections will now begin their full-fledged campaign against their opposing party's primary winner in the general election. The general election is held between the respective parties' nominees and any other candidates who may not have a political party affiliation. The winner of the general election will go on to occupy the specific office for which they are running. In addition to voting for candidates, voters also decide to accept or reject statewide ballot proposals in the general election.
As the primary season continues to unfold in many states, the general election campaign season has already begun to heat up in others. Whatever the outcome in the primary elections, it is important to stay actively involved in the political process---and as a U.S. citizen it is also both your right and responsibility to do so.