What Happens in a Primary Election?

This is a big local election year for King County, with more than 600 candidates running for office. Not all races will have a primary, though. Except for presidential primaries, Washington State uses a Top Two style primary system. Under this system, a registered voter does not declare a party affiliation and can vote for any candidate in each race, regardless of the candidate’s party preference. The top two candidates in each race advance to the General Election, regardless of their party affiliation.


For the August primary, the Seattle mayoral race has the most candidates. A total of 21 people are vying to be the city’s next mayor. The top two candidates with the most votes in the primary will move onto the General Election.

The Top Two system is popular among voters because it focuses on the candidates rather than the political parties. Washington hasn’t always had a Top Two primary system. From 1935 to 2003, the state held a “blanket primary” system where citizens could vote for a candidate of one party for one office, and then vote for a candidate of another party for the next office. The state briefly switched to a pick-a-party primary system in 2004, in which the voter was required to affiliate with a party and only vote for candidates of that party.

In the 2004 General Election, 60 percent of voters approved Initiative 872, which proposed a Top Two primary system. And in the August 2008 primary, Washington State conducted the first Top Two Primary in the country. Check out the Washington Secretary of State’s timeline on the history of primary systems.

This year, there are 83 different ballot styles reflecting 34 districts, 54 offices, 210 candidates and four measures.  King County Elections mailed primary election ballots last week to nearly 1.3 million registered voters. We’re projecting a 38 percent voter turnout. Turnout was 29 percent in 2013.

If you haven’t received your primary ballot or you have questions, call us at 206-296-VOTE (8683).