Sometimes it feels like the United States is in a never-ending election cycle. Maybe it’s because domestic political news is always dominating the headlines, or perhaps it’s the seemingly constant campaigning by politicians. Whatever the reason, there’s no denying that electoral politics will play some role in your life, and if you are eligible to vote, you really should do so. But being bombarded with election lingo can be a bit overwhelming. What does it all mean?
We’ve put together a list of some of the most common election lingo and voting terms, along with their definitions, to help you make more informed decisions and have a better understanding of the voting process.
A Brief Guide To Election Lingo
Absentee ballot — a ballot submitted by mail if a voter cannot be present at their polling place on election day
Battleground state — also known as a “swing state,” this is a state that could reasonably be won by either the Democrat or Republican candidates. A lot of time and money is spent campaigning in these states because, thanks to the electoral college, they can determine the outcome of national elections.
Caucus — an alternative to a primary election, this is a meeting of party members where they decide which candidate should be their state’s nominee. Iowa is the state best-known for its caucuses. The system has been criticized for being exclusionary due to the time commitment required, among other issues.
Chads — the small pieces of paper voters punch out when they select a candidate on certain paper ballots. These became infamous during the 2000 presidential election recount in Florida, when officials had to determine whether to count votes when chads remained partially stuck to the ballot (“hanging door chad” or “swinging door chad”) or when they were indented but remained fully attached to the ballot (“dimpled chad” or “pregnant chad”).
Closed primary — a primary election in which voters can only participate if they are registered members of that party
Electoral College — the process by which American presidents and vice presidents are elected. Each state has a number of electors equal to its total number of senators and representatives, who cast votes for the winner of the popular vote in that state (except for Maine and Nebraska, which split electors in a proportional system).
Exit polls — polling conducted as voters leave their polling place; often used by media outlets to make election outcome predictions
Open primary — a primary election in which voters can participate regardless of their party affiliation (or lack thereof)
Plurality voting — also known as “first-past-the-post” or “winner-takes-all” voting, this is the electoral system used in national elections, as well as in most state and local elections in the United States. In this system, each voter gets only one choice, and the candidate with the most votes wins, even if they don’t receive a majority (as in more than half) of the vote. Plurality voting tends to favor larger political parties over smaller ones.
Popular vote — the total votes cast in an election
Provisional ballot — a ballot used when there are questions about a voter’s identity or eligibility to vote. The ballot is counted when the voter’s information is confirmed.
Ranked-choice voting — an electoral system in which voters rank candidates in order of preference. If a candidate gets more than 50 percent of first-choice votes, they win. If not, the candidate with the least votes is removed and their votes are redistributed according to their voters’ second-choice candidates. This process is repeated until a candidate gets at least half of the vote. This system makes smaller, third-party candidates more viable options because voters can rank them first and rank a “safer” candidate second.
Referendum — a proposal to enact a new law or repeal an existing law, which appears on the ballot for voters to approve or reject
Runoff election — a second election held between the top two candidates after a primary (or sometimes general) election in which the winning candidate did not get the minimum percentage of the vote required in that state
Special election — an election that isn’t part of the normal schedule to fill a seat vacated by an official who died, resigned or was otherwise removed from office
Spoiler effect — a phenomenon that can occur in plurality voting when a third-party candidate divides a leading candidate’s support, causing that candidate to lose the election when they otherwise may have won
Super Tuesday — the day (usually in February or March) when the greatest number of states hold their presidential primary elections or caucuses
Tabulate — to count (as in ballots)