Types of Elections

Pennsylvania holds three types of elections: primary elections, general elections, and special elections. Learn more about each type here.

Primary elections

Primary elections in Pennsylvania are held on the third Tuesday of May in most years. In presidential years, the primary election is held on the fourth Tuesday of April.

In a primary election, Democrats and Republican voters selects the candidates they want to represent their parties during the November general election.

Pennsylvania has a closed primary system. This means that Republican voters can vote only for Republican candidates and Democratic voters can vote only for Democratic candidates. The candidates who receive the highest number of votes go on to run in the general election . 

While voting in a primary election for party nominees is limited to only voters registered as Democratic or Republican, all registered voters can vote in a primary election if the ballot includes any of the following:

  • a constitutional amendment question,
  • a ballot question, or
  • a special election in their district.

Special elections

Pennsylvania holds special elections when an elected official can no longer serve in their role. This may happen when someone resigns, dies, or is removed from office. Voters must then select someone to replace that person.

Special elections may be held:

  • during a general election,
  • during a primary election, or
  • on a different day.

The county or counties holding the special election must advertise the date and locations for the special election and the names of the candidates on the ballot.

All registered voters in the affected district may vote in a special election.

General elections

General elections are always held the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. In a general election, Pennsylvanians vote for federal, state, and local officials, including:

  • U.S. president,
  • U.S. senators and U.S. representatives to Congress,
  • Pennsylvania governor and lieutenant governor, 
  • Pennsylvania General Assembly members (state Senators and state Representatives), 
  • Attorney general, auditor general, and state treasurer,
  • County and local officials (in odd-numbered years), and
  • Judges and magisterial district judges (in odd-numbered years).

In odd-numbered years, the November general election is also called a municipal election because there are no federal or state office races on the ballot.

Every four years, the general election is also called a presidential election because the office of U.S. president is on the ballot.

More about presidential elections

In presidential elections, each major political party holds a national convention where they choose their nominee for president. The results of the primary election determine how votes from Pennsylvania are cast at the convention.

The nominees from each party run against each other in the general election in November.

The president is officially elected by the Electoral College, not by popular vote. But the popular vote – including your vote – helps determine which candidate receives Pennsylvania's electoral votes.

About the Electoral College

The U.S. Constitution created the Electoral College to ensure that each state has a role in selecting the president, no matter its population. Each state has the same number of electoral votes as it has members of Congress. There are a total of 538 votes in the Electoral College. A candidate must win a simple majority--270 electoral votes-- to win the election.

The Electoral College is composed of a group of citizens known as electors. Electors are chosen during their state's primary election to cast their Electoral College votes for U.S. president and vice president on behalf of that state's voters.

Pennsylvania has 20 electoral votes. All 20 of Pennsylvania’s electoral votes go to the candidates for U.S. preisident and vice president who win the popular vote in Pennsylvania.

When you cast your vote for president, you are telling your state’s electors to cast their votes for the candidate you select.