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Election and Voting Guide

A nonpartisan collection of information about state and national elections, voting.

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Glossary of U.S. Electoral Jargon and Terms

Absentee voting
Absentee voting allows voters who cannot come to polling places to cast their ballots. A variety of circumstances, including residency abroad, illness, travel or military service, can prevent voters from coming to the polls on Election Day. Absentee ballots permit registered voters to mail in their votes. The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, a federal law, governs absentee voting in presidential elections. Absentee voting rules for all other elections are set by the states, and vary. In Oregon, all elections are conducted by mail, but voters have the option of voting in person at county polling stations.

Ballot initiative
Ballot initiatives are an example of direct democracy in the United States, in which citizens may propose legislative measures or amendments to state constitutions. Some initiatives propose the repeal of existing state laws. States vary in the number of signatures they require to place an initiative on the ballot. These initiatives (also called “propositions” in some states) are subject to approval by a simple majority in most, but not all, cases. See also Referendum.

Blue state
Blue state is a term used to refer to a U.S. state where the majority of voters usually support Democratic candidates and causes. See also Red state.

Caucus
A caucus is a meeting at the local level in which registered members of a political party in a city, town or county gather to express support for candidates. For statewide or national offices, those recommendations are combined to determine the state party nominee. The term also is used to describe a group of elected officials with a common goal that meets to plan policy in support of a shared political agenda. Two well-known examples of such groups are the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, whose members discuss and advance the interests of their respective constituencies.

Challenger
A challenger is a candidate who runs for political office against a person who currently holds that office (the incumbent). See also Incumbent.

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission
This 2010 Supreme Court decision affirmed shareholders and other groups of people enjoy the same rights that they would have if they were acting as individuals. The court also ruled that the government cannot restrict how much such groups can spend to support or criticize political candidates. See also Super PACs.

Constituency
The people a government official represents make up his or her constituency. The term sometimes is used to refer only to those individuals who voted to elect the official. The president’s constituency comprises all Americans; a mayor’s constituency comprises the people who reside in the town or city.

Debate
A structured discussion involving two or more opposing sides is a debate. In American politics, debates have come to be associated with televised programs at which candidates present their own and their parties’ views in response to questions from the media or members of the audience. Debates also may be held via radio, the Internet or at a community meeting place. They can be held among those who seek elective office at any level of government.

Divided government
A situation in which the U.S. president is a member of one political party and at least one chamber of Congress (either the Senate or the House of Representatives) is controlled by another party is called a divided government. This situation also can exist at the state level, with one party controlling the governorship and another controlling the state legislature. Divided government occurs frequently in the U.S. political system.

Electoral College
The president and vice president are selected through the electoral college system, which gives each state the same number of electoral votes as it has members of Congress. The District of Columbia gets three electoral votes. Of the total 538 votes available, a candidate must receive 270 to win.

Gerrymandering
The practice of drawing political constituency maps to increase a particular candidate's or party's advantage in a subsequent election. In its rawest form, gerrymandering is when politicians choose their voters, rather than voters choosing their politicians. In the US, political district maps are typically redrawn once a decade following the completion of the census. The party in power in a state government uses sophisticated mapping and statistical data to redraw the map to ensure its candidates have the best chance of success, usually by diluting the electoral strength of the opposition party's supporters.

Incumbent
An individual currently holding a position is the incumbent. Historically, incumbents have enjoyed a better-than-average chance of being re-elected.

Independent
A candidate or voter not affiliated with a particular political party is termed an independent.

Lame duck
The term lame duck refers to an elected official during the time period between the election that chose the official’s successor and the date the successor assumes office. Such an individual is in a weakened position politically due to the impending expiration of his or her term.

Nominee
A person selected by others to run for office is the nominee. Nominees may be selected in primary elections or caucuses. When only one candidate from a party has filed to run for a political office, that candidate becomes the party’s nominee without any further selection process.

Platform
Platform refers to a political party’s formal written statement of its principles and goals, put together and issued during the presidential nomination process and affirmed during the party’s national political convention. Less formally, it can also refer to a candidate’s position on a set of political issues.

Political Action Committee (PAC)
PACs are political committees not related directly to a political party, but rather affiliated with corporations, labor unions or other organizations. The committees contribute money to candidates and engage in other election-related activities so as to promote specific legislative agendas. Funds are gathered by voluntary contributions from members, employees or shareholders. PACs have increased significantly in influence and number in recent years: In 1976, there were 608 PACs; in 2010, there were about 5,400.

Poll/Polling
A public opinion poll is created when a polling firm contacts a sample group of randomly selected citizens and asks a series of standard questions. If executed properly, the poll’s data reflect the range of opinions and the portion of the population that holds them in a manner representative of the full population. Public opinion polls provide an idea of what many Americans think about various candidates and issues. See also Push polling.

Primary
A state-level election in which voters choose a candidate affiliated with a political party to run against a candidate who is affiliated with another political party in a later, general election. A primary may be either “open” — allowing any registered voter in a state to vote for a candidate to represent a political party, or “closed” — allowing only registered voters who belong to a particular political party to vote for a candidate from that party. 

Redistricting
The process of redrawing the geographic boundaries of congressional districts, the electoral districts within states from which members of the House of Representatives are elected, is called redistricting. Democrats and Republicans at the state level compete to get hold of the legal and political mechanisms of redistricting — usually by controlling the state legislature. By doing so, they can redraw boundaries of congressional districts in ways that will lend an electoral advantage to their own party.

Red state
Red state refers to a U.S. state where the majority of voters usually support Republican candidates and causes. See also blue state.

Term limits
Term limits involve restricting the number of years an officeholder or lawmaker may serve in a particular office. There is a term limit for the U.S. president, who may serve no more than two consecutive terms, or eight years total. There are no term limits for those who serve in the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives. Some state and local offices are subject to terms limits.

Third party
Any political party that is not one of the two parties that have dominated U.S. politics since the late 19th century — the Republican Party and the Democratic Party — and that receives a base of support and plays a role in influencing the outcome of an election is referred to as a third party.

Ticket splitting
Voting for candidates of different political parties in the same election, for instance by voting for a Democrat for president and a Republican for senator, is called splitting the ticket. Because these voters support candidates from more than one political party, they are said to “split” their votes.

For more political/electoral terms see the U.S. Embassy Glossary and the BBC's US election glossary: A-Z guide to political jargon

National Elections

U.S. Federal Elections Overview

  • National Elections National elections are held for Congress, the Senate, and the President.  
  • Congressional elections occur every two years. Voters choose one-third of senators and every member of the House of Representatives.
  • Midterm elections occur halfway between presidential elections.  
  • Presidential elections occur every four years  
  • Congressional elections use the popular vote to choose winners rather than the electoral college used for presidential elections.

Resources for Federal Elections