How to Explain Primary Elections to Children

By Shellie Braeuner
Explaining the two-party system helps children understand the importance of primaries.
Explaining the two-party system helps children understand the importance of primaries.

The United States election process can seem very mysterious to adults, much less to kids. Yet, it’s difficult to hide from the political ads inundating every facet of life during election season. Explaining the basics teaches children the process long before they are ready to vote for the first time. Getting children interested in and excited about the election process may help you raise a future informed voter.

Find a picture of the president, either in print or online. Explain how important the job of running the country really is. Relate the job to simple things that the child sees. For example, the president makes decisions that affect your child’s school or the highways that he rides on. Talk about how many people want the job and how they all have different ideas about how to make this country the best it can be.

Show the child the toy donkey and elephant. Explain that the donkey is the symbol of the Democratic Party and the elephant represents the Republican Party. These are two large groups of people that have different ideas about how to run the country. Resist the urge to represent either party as "good guys" or "bad guys." Instead, point out that both groups have some good ideas and some bad and that democracy works when people who disagree learn how to work together.

Explain that usually there are several people who think they would be a good President for the Democrats and that it is the same for the Republicans. Unfortunately, for the Presidential election, each party can only choose one candidate. Primaries give voters the chance to choose one candidate for each party.

Compare the primary process to popular television shows. For example, talk to your child about popular talent competition shows. Many people want to win the competition and thousands will audition. The show would be too long if everyone who auditioned got to perform live. Instead, a panel of judges vote on each audition and only the best get to compete on the show.

Tell your child about open primaries. These are primaries where everyone can vote by simply asking for either a Republican or Democratic ballot at the voting booth. Then explain closed primaries where only voters who have chosen a party can vote in the election. Talk about why this is important. For example, in 2012, President Barak Obama ran for re-election. In some states, Democratic voters just stayed home during the primary election because there was no primary process since he was already the chosen candidate. However, in other states, Democratic voters could vote in the Republican primary. Ask your child "What if those Democrats voted for a weak candidate that they thought President Obama could beat easily?" or talk about how they could pick the candidate they liked best from the other party. Discuss what makes an election fair.

Hold a primary in your own family. For example, point out that there are literally hundreds of different things you might choose to have for dinner. Half the family wants chicken and the other half wants beef, but there are lots of different ways to have each. Before you can vote fairly on your meal, you have to decide what kind of chicken or beef dinner is possible. So the chicken lovers can vote on whether to propose fried chicken or chicken nuggets while the beef contingent chooses between burgers and beef and pepper stir fry to present as their main option.

Things You Will Need

  • Picture of the current President of the United States
  • Toy Donkey
  • Toy Elephant


Take your child with you to vote. Explain how important it is that everyone makes their voice heard in an election.

About the Author

Based in Nashville, Shellie Braeuner has been writing articles since 1986 on topics including child rearing, entertainment, politics and home improvement. Her work has appeared in "The Tennessean" and "Borderlines" as well as a book from Simon & Schuster. Braeuner holds a Master of Education in developmental counseling from Vanderbilt University.