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Why do I declare a party on my Washington presidential primary ballot? (And other things you should know)

caption: Democrats and Republicans listed on the 2024 presidential primary ballot in Washington state.
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Democrats and Republicans listed on the 2024 presidential primary ballot in Washington state.
Dyer Oxley / KUOW

Ballots for Washington's 2024 presidential primary election are now arriving in mailboxes across the state. But to make their votes count, voters must declare that they prefer one party over the other. There are also plenty of candidates listed who are no longer running. What does this all mean? KUOW's presidential primary primer is here to help.

RELATED: Washington's GOP divide: He’s for Trump and she’s for Nikki Haley

Who: Democrats and Republicans present a handful of presidential candidates voters can choose from.

What: The winners of the primary election will represent their respective political parties on the November general election ballot. (Note: There will be some candidates listed on the primary ballot who have already backed out of the race. You can still vote for them, but they are not running for president anymore.)

Where: All Washington voters get ballots in the mail, which can be returned to an official ballot box or mailed back (must be postmarked by March 12). Voters can also go to a voting center on election day. Check here for more information about where ballot boxes and voting centers are located.


  • March 4: This is the deadline to register to vote online. If you mail in your voter registration, it must be received by an elections office by this date (note: not postmarked by this date).
  • March 12: The official presidential primary election day. People can register to vote at county elections offices on this day. Ballots must be postmarked by this date, or ballots must be turned in to ballot boxes by 8 p.m.
  • March 29: The final day the Secretary of State's Office will certify primary results.

Why do I have to check a box to declare a party?

Voters can only vote for one presidential candidate, in one party. You cannot vote for a candidate in each party. On the outside of the ballot, voters must check a box to declare they prefer Democrat or Republican. This means they are only participating in one party's primary selection. It does not mean they are registering for any political party. It also doesn't mean that the voter must vote for the party's candidate in the general election in November.

RELATED: Washington state braces for deepfakes ahead of 2024 elections

"You need to declare your party preference in our presidential primaries because the two major political parties require it," KUOW's David Hyde told Kim Malcolm. "And those parties are allowed to do that under state law, which effectively they wrote as elected officials. But this is only for presidential primaries."

Who voters pick on their ballot is still confidential.

"This is a question about just your party preference," Hyde said. "And keep in mind, in other states, I used to live in New York, you need to actually register as a Democrat or a Republican ... [in Washington] you don't need to do that. Only when you're voting in these presidential primaries do you need to say, 'Hey, I'm a member of the GOP. I'm a member of the Democratic Party. I'm a member of this club.' And then that club says, 'OK, you can vote in our primary.'"

Still, the question has been raised about why the declaration is on the outside of the ballot envelope. A recent tweet on X garnered the attention of Washington state's GOP chair Jim Walsh, as well as Elon Musk (and controversial Dilbert creator Scott Adams).

"Some of this is just conspiracy theory stuff about imaginary elections officials throwing out ballots," Hyde said. "There is zero evidence for that. Secondly, why would they do that? Because throwing out a ballot based on this information doesn't really accomplish anything. If I threw out a Republican ballot, we're just talking about the Republican primary. Nobody can tell from the outside of the envelope if I voted for Donald Trump or Nikki Haley. So what exactly am I accomplishing by throwing out a Republican or a Democratic ballot? Just doesn't make any sense."

Party declarations are not required for Washington's state primaries in August.

RELATED: Already?! Washington state’s presidential primary is here

Hyde notes that counties have the option of creating privacy flaps on the ballot envelopes, but no county is using them. There have also been past attempts to change this aspect of presidential primary ballots, which have gained little support in the state Legislature.

Your party preference is public record for 60 days

According to state law, if a voter declares a party on their ballot, that will be public record for 60 days after the primary election. The idea here is to prevent political meddling and other bad behavior. For example: Someone claiming to prefer a party on the ballot, but then participating in a different party's caucus.

Another important fact about this party declaration is that this information is already public record.

Why the 2024 presidential primary is relevant

Political parties use primary election results when they caucus later on. Caucuses are organized by the parties and are only for the parties.

"The parties use this information; they're tracking you," Hyde said. "But this is an actual vote where you're indicating your preference for a presidential nominee. So let's say that's President Biden or former President Trump, the parties will then use that information when they get to their national convention. Our delegates are bound to that vote, so they're obligated to vote the way that the voters here in Washington state told them to vote."

Note: The 2024 presidential primary is not the same election as the local primary for Washington state governor. The gubernatorial election happens in August.

RELATED: Already?! Washington state’s presidential primary is here

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