Why Do Primary Elections Matter? With Mary Currin-Percival

by | Mar 1, 2024 | Community Engagement, Featured

Tuesday, March 5, is the California primary election. Photo by Alyssa Karlin, ’23 BFA Photography.

This Tuesday, March 5, California voters have the opportunity to participate in the 2024 primary election. This spring’s election is unique for a few reasons, though, and may be a bit confusing for a first-time voter to parse. Luckily, San José State Associate Professor of Political Science Mary Currin-Percival, who wears dual hats as the director of the Institute for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement (IPACE) and leader of the on-campus voter registration, mobilization and education initiative SJSU Votes, is happy to contextualize the March ballot for anyone ready and willing to vote.

Today, she shares five ideas to keep in mind this election cycle.

1. In California, you can register to vote in person up until — as well as on — Election Day.

According to the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters, you may register to vote as long as you are 18 years old, a U.S. citizen, a California resident, not currently serving a state or federal prison term for the conviction of a felony and not currently found mentally incompetent to vote by a court. You can complete same-day or conditional voter registration in person at voting centers up until, as well as on, Election Day.

If you are voting via vote-by-mail ballot, you should have already received your ballot in the mail. Vote-by-mail ballots are valid as long as they are postmarked by March 5. They can also be dropped off at an authorized ballot drop box or vote center. There are three authorized ballot boxes on campus (outside of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library; at Campus Village; and Dudley Moorhead Hall), as well as an official vote center in the SJSU Provident Credit Union Event Center, open March 2–5. Vote centers also offer expanded services, including language assistance and accessible voting.

Not sure if you’re already registered? Visit Vote.org to check your registration status.

2. This election includes a presidential primary.

Mary Currin-Percival and a student at SJSU Votes.

SJSU Associate Professor of Political Science Mary Currin-Percival (left) and Christopher Saint Carter, ’24 Political Science, at the SJSU Votes festival on campus. Photo courtesy of Mary Currin-Percival.

The United States offers a sequential primary system, meaning that each state decides when to hold the primary for presidential candidates in the months leading up to the general election in November. Currin-Percival explains that the order of the primaries is also intended to help candidates plan their campaigns state by state.

During statewide presidential primaries, Currin-Percival says that voters “get to learn a lot about candidates. They get to participate in what we call ‘retail politics,’ where they go out to meet voters in coffee shops and businesses, and they give speeches to help us learn more about them.”

If you plan to vote in the presidential primary in California this March, she says, your party registration matters, so you should double check your party registration to ensure you receive the appropriate ballot. 

If you are registered as “no party preference” (NPP), you can request a cross-over ballot from one of the three parties in this election. The Libertarian, American Independent and Democratic Parties allow NPP voters to vote in their presidential primary using a cross-over ballot. 

If you are an NPP voter and would like to vote for another party’s presidential candidates in the March primary, you will have to re-register for that political party. You can do this using conditional or “same-day” registration at the on-campus vote center.

3. There are additional options on the ballot beyond presidential candidates.

This March, Californians can vote on state assembly races, state Senate races, the U.S. House of Representatives and one U.S. Senate seat. 

After the late U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein passed away last fall, her seat was (and is currently) filled by Interim Senator Laphonza Butler. That means that voters can select someone to complete the partial, unexpired term which ends in January 2025, as well as someone to take the helm once the new term starts in January.

The state election is a “top two primary,” she adds. “The top two vote getters, regardless of party, go on to the general election [in November]. This applies to the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House, and state constitutional offices.”

Local races — such as races for city council, superior court judges, mayors and other leadership offices at the citywide and countywide level — are similar to state elections in that they are also top-two primaries, but they are nonpartisan.

“If one candidate [in a local election] wins a majority (over 50%) in this primary election, they will win the seat. If not, the top two candidates will go to a runoff election in November,” Currin-Percival says.

In addition, voters can elect members of either the Democratic or Republican State Central Committee, people who are elected or appointed as local leaders and developers of political parties. 

4. There are many ways to engage civically.

“Even if you’re not eligible to vote, they still represent you,” she says. “So even after the election is over, it’s important to consider other ways to be civically engaged.”

In her classes and through SJSU Votes, she stresses that students — and anyone living in a community — can contact elected officials directly to share their experiences, beliefs or concerns on any number of issues. People can also volunteer for campaigns and causes they believe in, canvas neighborhoods to share information on how and where to vote, and more.

5. Voting is a way to exercise your voice.

SJSU students pledge to vote.

Students stop by an SJSU Votes booth to share why they vote. Photo courtesy of Mary Currin-Percival.

“I’m proud and excited to vote,” says Currin-Percival. “It’s one of the many ways that we can be civically engaged. I encourage young people to vote because this is their future.”

She acknowledges some concern for low voter turnout, especially among Gen Z, but says she hopes “that prediction is wrong,” adding that voters have plenty to choose from on the ballot.

“I’m hoping that young folks will go out there and have their voices heard,” she says.

Currin-Percival will be tabling with SJSU Votes on campus on Monday and Tuesday and are available to answer additional voter registration questions. A vote center will be available at the SJSU Provident Credit Union Event Center on Saturday, March 2, through Monday, March 4, from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., and on Tuesday, March 5, from 7 a.m. – 8 p.m. 

To learn more, check out Currin-Percival’s co-authored book, “California Politics and Government: A Practical Approach,” written with SJSU Political Science Professor Garrick Percival and SJSU Professor Emeritus of Political Science Larry Gerston and SJSU Political Science Professor Emeritus of Political Science Terry Christensen.