Definitions of Common Voting and Election Terms

Learn the meaning of common terms used in voting and elections.

Absentee Ballot — A ballot filed by a voter who cannot be physically present at their polling place on Election Day. Absentee ballots are often filed by people who are living abroad, serving in the military, traveling, or attending school in a different state than their legal state of residence.

Ballot — A list of candidates and proposed laws that voters mark to make choices. A ballot may be made of paper and marked with a pen or hole punch or it may be electronic and voters mark their choices with the push of a button or by touch screen.

Ballot Initiative — A proposed law drafted by citizens and placed on the ballot to be approved or rejected by voters. Ballot initiatives are usually drafted by a group of voters who are passionate about a particular issue.

Campaign Finance Disclosure — A report on how a candidate has spent the money raised for their campaign and where that money came from

Caucus — A meeting held by members of a party to decide an issue. This term is most commonly used in Presidential election years to refer to statewide meetings when members of a party choose a candidate to support or elect members to a state nominating committee.

Constituent — A person who lives, works, or pays taxes in an area that a politician represents

Delegate, Convention (Unpledged, Pledged, and Super)  Someone who is chosen to represent their town or state at a national political convention. A pledged delegate is required to support the candidate chosen by the voters that they represent. An unpledged delegate is not bound by any requirements or agreements to support a specific candidate. A superdelegate is often a party official or veteran politician who is not required to be chosen or elected to the position and can support any candidate they choose.

District (also Ward) — A geographical area that an elected official serves or represents

Election Fraud — Criminal activity that impacts the integrity of an election. Election fraud can include bribery, tampering with ballots, or other illegal ways to interfere with the result of an election.

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, and give the official vote count

Elector — A person who is certified to represent their state's vote in the Electoral College

Electoral College, Electoral Vote — The process by which the President and Vice President are elected. Each state is entitled to be represented by a number of electors based on the size of that state's congressional delegation. Those electors then gather to cast the state's votes in the Electoral College for the candidate who won in their state during a Presidential election.

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

Impeachment — The process to remove a high-level government official such as a President, Vice President, federal judge, Representative, or Senator. On the federal level, the House of Representatives investigates and brings impeachment charges and the Senate holds the impeachment trial. Some states and cities use impeachment to remove governors, mayors, or other elected officials. Other states allow officials to be removed through a recall election instead of impeachment. (see Recall Election)

Inauguration  A day of ceremony in which a newly-elected official takes office. This usually involves a swearing-in ceremony, speeches, and celebrations. Inaugurations are typically held for Presidents and Vice Presidents, mayors, and governors.

Incumbent — The person currently in a particular job or political office

Midterm Election — The federal election between Presidential elections in which voters choose members of Congress

Nominee — The final candidate chosen by a party to represent them in an election

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

Political Action Committee — A group organized to raise money or support for a politician or cause, often abbreviated PAC

Political Party — A group organized around the intention to govern and legislate in a specific way based on a chosen set of principles or platform

Polling Place (Polling Station) — The location in which you cast your vote. Your area may hold voting in schools, churches, community centers, or other central public places. Your polling place is assigned based on your legal address.

Popular Vote — 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. (U.S. President and Vice President are determined by an Electoral College vote.)

Precinct (Election District, Voting District) — Each city, county, or geographic area is divided up by address into precincts for the purpose of assigning a polling place and gathering votes. A precinct can sometimes be called an election district or voting district.

Primary Election (Open and Closed) — An election held to determine which of a party's candidates will receive that party's nomination and be their sole candidate later in the general election. In an open primary, all voters can vote for any candidate they prefer, regardless of the voter’s or candidate's party affiliation. In a closed primary, voters can only vote for a candidate from the party that the voter belongs to.

Provisional Ballot — Type of ballot used to collect a vote when there are questions about the voter’s identity or ability to vote at that precinct. A provisional ballot is counted when the voter’s information is confirmed.

Recall Election — Type of election in which voters can decide to remove an elected official from office before that official completes their term. A recall election can generally take place if enough voters sign a petition asking for one. Rules on the number of voters needed and the officials who can be recalled are different from state to state. The President, Vice President, Representatives, Senators, federal judges and federal officials cannot be recalled, only impeached. (see Impeachment)

Recount — Counting the votes again because of a suspected error in totaling the vote

Referendum — A proposed new law drafted by legislators or proposal to repeal an existing law, passed to the voters to approve or reject by popular vote. Some states require that spending bills, bond issues, and constitutional amendments be approved by a referendum before they can be adopted.

Registered Voter — Someone who is qualified and has applied and been added to their area’s voter registration system

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.

Special Election — An election held outside the regular election schedule to fill a vacant position if an officeholder dies, resigns, or is impeached

Super Tuesday — The day when the largest number of U.S. states and territories hold primary elections or caucuses for Presidential candidates. The candidates who win on Super Tuesday are more likely to win their party’s nomination.

Term — The set length of time for someone to serve in an elected office. The President and Vice President of the United States serve a four-year term. Representatives serve two years and Senators serve six years.

Term Limit — The total amount of terms that an officeholder is allowed to serve in a particular position. Laws set term limits for elected offices. No one can serve more than two terms as President of the United States. There are no laws about term limits for Representatives or Senators, and term limits for governors and other elected officials are different in each state and locality.

Ticket — The group of candidates that a party is running in an election

Town Hall Meeting or Debate — A setting in which candidates for office answer questions from voters. In a town hall-style debate, a moderator helps ensure candidates follow the rules they agreed to.

Voter Fraud (Election Fraud) — Interfering with the results of an election by illegally voting or doing illegal things that affect the outcome of a vote. Types of voter fraud include bribery, illegal voter registration, tampering with voting machines or ballot boxes, voter impersonation, vote buying, false advertising about the election date or how to vote, and other illegal activities.

Voter Intimidation (Voter Suppression) — An attempt by an official, individual, or group to prevent eligible people from voting or forcing them to vote a certain way. Some voter intimidation tactics include using verbal or physical threats, threatening with weapons or jail time, tests involving literacy, property ownership, or citizenship, poll taxes, or other types of intimidation to prevent an eligible person from voting freely.

Voting Guide / Voter Guide — Information about candidates and issues in an upcoming election. Guides can be published by political parties, organizations, or other groups and may be non-partisan or may favor a particular party or viewpoint.

Share This Page: Facebook Twitter Email

Back to Top

Do you need help?

Ask us any question about the U.S. government for free. We'll get you the answer or tell you where to find it.

What you think matters!

Last Updated: March 05, 2018