Voted Yet? All the Election Terminology You Need

6 min read

There are many ways to exercise suffrage (the right to vote). You may cast your vote at your designated polling place on Election Day; many districts are also allowing early in-person voting. Absentee and mail-in voting has been especially popular this year. It can all get a little overwhelming, but it’s important! Let’s run through the terminology around voting and make sure you’re fully prepared to fill out that ballot with confidence.

Absentee Ballot

A ballot completed and typically mailed in advance of an election by a voter who is unable to be present at the polls.

You might not get your “I Voted!” sticker to wear proudly in selfies, but you may vote by absentee ballot and your vote will be counted.

Ballot Initiative

A proposed law drafted by citizens and placed on the ballot. Citizens will vote to approve or reject it. Ballot initiatives are usually drafted by groups who are passionate about an issue.

While laws are typically decided by state or federal legislatures, some proposals are placed on the ballot for the people to decide. These ballot initiatives might also be called ballot measures, referendums, commission referrals, legislative referrals, or automatic referrals.

Constituency

A body of voters in a specified area who elect a representative to a legislative body.

You are a member of several constituencies. Local (such as those that elect city councils, mayors, and school boards), state (to elect statewide offices like governor and senator), and federal (to elect the President).

Constituent

A member of a constituency.

That’s you!

Election Official (Also Poll Worker, Election Clerk, Election Judge)

A person appointed to:

  • Monitor the voting process at a polling place
  • Make sure voters follow state requirements
  • Certify an election was conducted legally
  • Give the official vote count

This is a great way to participate in the voting process. States have different requirements for registration, age, residency, and political party affiliation. In some states, you can volunteer at the same time you get a driver’s license, register to vote, and become an organ donor.

Electioneer

To take part actively and energetically in the activities of an election campaign.

The day-to-day activities of a candidate running for office can be called electioneering. But on Election Day, there are more rules about this verb. The candidate might continue their activities with speeches or on TV, but supporters may not engage in “electioneering” at the polling places. The rules vary by location and district, but in general, no electioneering is allowed within 100 feet of the polling place. That includes wearing T-shirts or buttons for a certain candidate, waving signs, or talking to other voters about their vote. To avoid any electioneering, just take your “I Voted!” sticker and wear it with pride.

Elector

A member of the Electoral College.

Every registered voter is making a difference in the election, but for the presidential election, the electors cast the final vote. When you vote for a presidential candidate on Election Day, you’re actually voting for electors pledged to each political party on the ballot. Then the electors vote in the Electoral College for President. In most states, electors are required to vote for their party’s candidate, so the winner of the electors’ votes is usually the winner of the popular vote in that state. Of course, there are exceptions, and there have been times where a political party’s pledged electors cast their ballot for a different candidate.

Electoral College

A body of people representing the states, who formally cast votes for the election of the President and Vice President.

In the United States, there are 538 electors in the Electoral College. The electors for each state are chosen based on the results of the presidential election in November every four years. Then the electors cast their ballots for President and Vice President on the first Monday after the second Wednesday of December. A candidate must receive at least 270 electoral votes to win. States are granted electors based on population, but they are guaranteed at least three votes, so smaller population states have a disproportionate voting weight. Due to this imbalance, there have been multiple candidates who won the national popular vote but lost the Electoral College vote. It’s a complicated process and there are many “what if” scenarios that get played out every four years. There’s always a lot of talk about abolishing the Electoral College, but for now, that’s how the President and Vice President are elected.

Electoral Vote

A vote cast by a member of the Electoral College.

We’ve talked about who gets to cast an electoral vote and how that determines the winner of the presidential election. But when the word “the” precedes “electoral vote,” the meaning changes. The electoral vote is the collective choice of the Electoral College for the winner of the elections for President and Vice President of the United States.

Electorate

All the people in a country or area who are entitled to vote in an election.

If you meet the requirements to vote in your district, you are part of the electorate. But you have to register to vote.

General Election

A final election for a political office with a limited list of candidates. The candidates in the general election are the people who won their party's primary election. General elections happen at a local, state, and national level.

Primary elections for political parties usually have a long list of candidates. Through those primary elections, the list is narrowed down to a limited number of candidates for the general election. The winners of the general election are the folks who take office.

Incumbent

The holder of an office or post.

If the current holder of an office hasn’t reached their term limit, and they decide to run for re-election, they are called the “incumbent.” It doesn’t give them any special treatment in the election, but the constituency has an idea of what kind of leader that person will be — which may hurt or help their campaign for re-election.

Lame Duck

An official (especially the President) in the final period of office, after the election of a successor.

Should an incumbent lose their campaign for re-election, they still have to serve out the remainder of their term. The same is true of an official who chooses not to run for re-election. The “lame duck” doesn't officially lose any of their powers after a successor has been chosen and before they've been inaugurated, but it’s a tradition to not do too much when the voters have already put their support behind a different candidate.

Platform

A collection of beliefs, legislative goals, morals, and ideals. A political party's platform outlines its principles and plans to govern.

We’re not talking about a wooden platform, but the structure is just as real, if not physical. A platform will explain the general philosophies and values of a party on big issues such as taxes, immigration, health care, and foreign policy. An issue that matters deeply to one party might not even appear on another party’s platform.

Plurality

The number of votes cast for a candidate who receives more than any other but does not receive an absolute majority.

When there are two candidates on the ballot, the winner is simple: whoever receives the majority of the votes. But if there are more than two candidates, it’s possible for the person with more votes than anyone else to not receive a majority of the votes. That voting result is called a “plurality.”

Polling Place

A building where voting takes place during an election, typically one that normally has another function, such as a school.

Where is your polling place? You might visit a church, school, or library to cast your vote. Polling places are usually easily accessible buildings with enough space and parking for the voters.

The votes cast during an election for a candidate or about an issue. Whichever candidate or decision about an issue gets the most votes has won the popular vote.

This is true except in the presidential and vice presidential election, but we’ve already talked about the Electoral College.

President-Elect

A person who has been elected President but has not yet taken up office.

From the day the presidential election is decided, up to Inauguration Day, the title is President-Elect — unless the winner is the incumbent, in which case, it’s still the President.

Psephology

The statistical study of elections and trends in voting.

Psephologists have a lot to do around Election Day. This name for the study of elections and voting trends came about in the 1950s, from the Greek word psēphos, which means pebble. Ancient Greeks used pebbles to cast their votes.

Sample Ballot

An example of what the official ballot will look like. These can be used to help people make decisions, and are often published by newspapers or websites.

You’ll probably receive a sample ballot in the mail before an election, or you can look one up on the internet. It’s helpful to take a look and do a little research so you feel confident when casting your vote.

Suffrage

The right to vote in political elections.

In the United States, different populations were granted suffrage at different times. In 2020, we’re celebrating 100 years of women’s suffrage, granted by the 19th Amendment.

Editor’s note: Some definitions were found at USA.gov.

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