In politics, preselection is the process by which a candidate is selected, usually by a political party, to contest an election for political office. It is also referred to as candidate selection. It is a fundamental function of political parties, affecting 'representation, party cohesion, legislative behaviour and democratic stability.' In countries that adopt Westminster-style responsible government, preselection is also the first step on the path to a position in the executive.

An example of a preselection procedure that gains extensive media coverage is the selection of candidates for President of the United States, referred to by one observer as 'the wildest democratic political bazaar in the world'. These are generally known as presidential primaries, but are actually a combination of primary elections, in which voters in a jurisdiction select candidates, and caucuses, in which candidates are selected by a narrower (but still potentially large) group of party members.

In other countries, a wide variety of preselection systems exist, though the majority involve members of a political party or party executive playing a role in selecting candidates to compete in elections.

Variables in the Preselection process

Preselection can occur in a wide variety of ways, but four main variables characterise the range of systems:

  • Eligibility to stand
  • Membership of the preselecting body
  • System used by the body to make the choice
  • Additional rules determining composition of candidates as a group.

In each case, it is possible to assess the variables on a scale from "open" to "closed or from "inclusive" to "exclusive".

Eligibility to stand

Eligibility to be a candidate in preselection is frequently bound by rules set by a political party.

Preselection may also be affected by a jurisdiction's electoral system. In Indonesia, for example, there is a system of public and administrative scrutiny of draft candidate lists. This may include examination of issues such as personal character or internal party issues, and lead to candidates being eliminated.

Membership of the preselecting body

The bodies that most commonly preselect candidates for political office (the selectors or "selectorate") are party members or party organisations such as a party executive or candidate selection committee. However, the selectors may be a broader group such as all voters or registered voters (as in some United States primary elections). Alternatively, there may be a more restricted group of selectors or selection may, in rare cases, be undertaken by an individual, such as a party leader.

System used by the body to make the choice

Preselection may take place by a system of voting by the selectors (examples include United States primaries and most major Australian political party preselections), or there may be a system of appointment, such as through decision by a selection committee.

Additional rules governing preselection

Some preselections are governed by additional rules that may serve to ensure a particular composition amongst candidates as a whole, or to facilitate other party objectives such as decentralisation of decision-making. In several countries including Australia and Canada, candidate selection is normally conducted by internal party processes at the constituency or electorate level. However it can be possible for a regional or national party body or leader to intervene to ensure a particular candidate is preselected, and there may be party rules governing the composition of the body of candidates as a whole that may require modification of preselection processes or outcomes, such as to implement policies directed toward gender balance. Gender balance objectives have been set by the Australian Labor Party and the German Social Democratic Party. In Belgium, the Belgian Christian Social party set rules aimed at ensuring balanced preselection of Flemish and Francophone candidates.

Preselection controversies and scandals

Preselection within all major Australian political parties has been the subject of accounts of "branch stacking" and abuse of process. While affecting both major parties, the Australian Labor Party was most severely affected in the state of Queensland, in incidents that led to the resignation of three members of the Queensland Parliament. The resignations were related to allegations or admissions of electoral fraud resulting from attempts to "branch stack": to bring supporters into a party branch or electorate to assist a candidate in their bid to win party preselection.




  • M. Gallagher and M. Marsh (eds), Candidate Selection in Comparative Perspective: The Secret Garden of Politics, Sage, London, 1988.
  • Reuven Hazan, 'Candidate Selection', in Lawrence LeDuc, Richard Niemi and Pippa Norris (eds), Comparing Democracies 2, Sage Publications, London, 2002, pp.108-126.
  • Kenneth Janda, Adopting Party Law, National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, Washington, USA, 2005.
  • Graeme Orr, 'Overseeing the Gatekeepers: Should the Preselection of Political Candidates be Regulated?', Public Law Review, Vol. 12, 2001, pp. 89–94.
  • A. Ranney, 'Candidate Selection',in D. Butler et al (eds), Democracy at the Polls: A Comparative Study of Competitive national Elections, American Enterprise Institute, Washington DC, 1981, pp. 75-106.

Preselection in Australia

  • Gary Johns, 'Parties, probity and preselection', IPA Review, Vol. 53, No. 1, 2001, pp. 18-19.
  • Marian Simms, 'Parliament and party preselection: parties and the secret garden of politics', Legislative Studies, Vol. 7, No. 2, 1993, pp 42-47.

Preselection in Canada

  • R.K. Carty and Lynda Erickson, 'Candidate Nomination in Canada's National Political Parties', In Herman Bakvis (ed.), Canadian Political Parties: Leaders, Candidates and Organisation, Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing Research studies, Volume 13, Dundurn Press, Toronto, 1991, pp. 97-190.

Preselection in New Zealand

  • Raymond Miller, Party Politics in New Zealand, Oxford University Press, 2005, Chapter 6: 'Selecting Candidates'.

Preselection in the United Kingdom

  • Michael Rush, The selection of parliamentary candidates, Nelson, London, 1969.
  • D. Denver, 'Britain: Centralised Parties with Decentralised Selection', in M. Gallagher and M. Marsh (eds), Candidate Selection in Comparative Perspective: The Secret Garden of Politics, Sage, London, 1988, pp. 47-71.

Preselection in the United States

  • See primary election
  • See United States presidential primary
  • John Haskell, 'A Quarter Century of Direct Democracy in Presidential Nomination Campaigns: What's the Verdict?', in Robert DiClerico (ed.), Political Parties, Campaigns, and Elections, Prentice Hall, NJ, 2000, pp. 31-44.

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