English Language Blog

U.S. Election Vocabulary Posted by on Nov 4, 2016 in Culture, English Vocabulary, News


Every four years the electorate chooses who will occupy this building.

We’ve talked about the U.S. presidential election, but you may still find yourself hearing certain terms which you don’t fully understand. Here’s a handy vocabulary guide to words and phrases which take on greater significance in the United States every four years.

Absentee ballot: A ballot which is filled out and usually mailed in by a registered voter who cannot physically attend their legal polling place.

Ballot: A card or sheet of paper in which all the names of the candidates and issues to be voted on are written. The ballot may now appear in electronic form.

Ballot box: A box into which a voter places their completed ballot. This keeps the voter’s ballot secret, private, and secure.

Ballot measure: A legislative topic or issue which is to be approved or rejected by the voters in an election.

Blue state: One of the states in the U.S. which typically votes in the majority for Democratic Party candidates.

Campaign: The process of running for office.

Candidate: A person running for office.

Canvass: To locate supporters in an effort to secure their votes.

Caucus: A meeting of members of a political party for the purpose of selecting candidates or determining legislative agendas.

Coattails: The ability for a major candidate to gain votes for down-ballot candidates. Also known as Riding Coattails.

Congressional delegation: The senators and members of the U.S. House of Representatives for any particular state.

Congressional district: An electoral constituency which elects a single member of Congress every two years. Also known as a legislative district, the district and its specific constituency is based on population, which, in the United States, is taken using a census every ten years.

Constituent: A voter represented by an elected legislative official. Plural form: Constituents. 

Donkey: The symbol of the Democratic Party. When Andrew Jackson ran for president in 1828, his opponent called him a “jackass”. Jackson adopted the donkey as a symbol of stubbornness and free will.

Down-ballot candidate: Candidates running for office who aren’t at the top of the ticket. In a presidential election year, this is anyone on the ballot below the candidates for president and vice-president.

Early voting: Also known as advance polling, this is a period of time in which voting is permitted prior to Election Day, which is the second Tuesday of November. 34 states have early voting, which is conducted at early voting polling stations.

Electoral College: The formal body of representatives from each state which officially elects the president of the United States. Electors vote based on the wishes of their constituents. The Electoral College is comprised of 538 electors, with a majority of 270 needed to win the presidency. The allotment of electors for each state is predicated on the number of members of its Congressional Delegation: two for each senators and one for each Representative in the House. California has 55 electoral votes, with 53 Representatives and two U.S. Senators.

Electorate: All eligible voters.

Elephant: The symbol of the Republican Party. It likely refers to an archaic term, “Seeing the elephant”, a reference to preparedness for war, and a reminder that Republicans led the victory in the U.S. Civil War.

Executive branch: One of the three federal branches of government. It is broadly responsible for determining federal policy and executing the laws passed by the Legislative branch, and interpreted by the Judicial branch. The President of the United states leads the Executive branch.

Exit poll: A survey conducted outside a polling station to gauge the outcome of an election, and the feelings of the electorate.

Front runner: The candidate in an election who is leading in the polls.

General election: The election in which the names of all final candidates for office appear on one ballot, and the voters get to choose. It is the opposite of a primary election.

Gerrymandering: Creating a map of legislative districts for the purposes of increasing the power of one political party over another. States and counties are divided into legislative districts, and those districts are represented in Congress by members of the House of Representatives. Gerrymandering divides those districts in a way which favors the reelection chances of the party (Republican or Democrat) in charge of the redistricting.

GOP: A synonym for the Republican Party. It is an acronym for Grand Old Party.

GOTV: Acronym for get out the vote.

Ground game: A party or candidate’s plan to insure that their supporters get to the polls and vote. This involves phone calls, canvassing, arranging transportation to the polling stations, and generating enthusiasm with rallies.

House of Representatives: The larger branch of the U.S. Congress, and part of the federal government’s legislative branch. Limited by law to no more than 435 members, the House contains members from all 50 states. Representatives are elected every 2 years.

Incumbent: A candidate for election who currently holds the office being voted upon.

Independent candidate: A candidate not affiliated with any major political party. See third party.

Judicial branch: One of the three federal branches of government. It is a series of courts and judges which interprets and applies the laws of the United States, and also changes laws through judicial review. The Chief Justice of the supreme Court leads the Judicial branch.

Left wing: Liberals and progressives. Dating back to the French Revolution, when King Louis XVI sat in the Assembly, the more revolutionary and pro-change members sat to his left.

Legislative branch: The federal branch of government which writes, debates, and passes laws. Made up of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, it is also referred to as Congress. There are two heads of the Legislative branch. The Speaker of the House leads the House of Representatives, and the Vice President of the U.S. leads the Senate.

Lobby: Attempting to influence a politician or group’s decision on a legislative matter. Named for an area in an office building (like the Capitol Building in Washington, DC) where individuals can meet and discuss between legislative sessions.

Lobbyist: A person hired to lobby on behalf of the interests of a particular business or group.

Majority party: A political group in a legislative body with the most voting members. In the U.S. Congress, the House of Representatives may have one party in the voting majority, and the Senate could have a different party in the majority.

Midterm elections: Elections held two years into a President’s four year term. Elections for members of the House of Representatives are held every two years.

Negative ads: Advertisements on television, radio, online, or in print which are designed to embarrass or impugn the character of a candidate for office. Negative ads do not focus on actual policy or issues, but rather on personal matters.

October surprise: A news story which affects the presidential campaign in the final weeks. This year there were several.

Partisan: Favoring one side over another.

Party platform: A document composed, and voted upon, during a political party’s convention prior to the general election. It states the beliefs and goals for that party over the next four years.

Poll: A sampling of views and/or opinions. Sometimes questions can be skewed to get a particular response.

Polling stations: A place to cast votes.

Pollster: A person assigned to take a poll and, often, analyze the results.

Precinct: The smallest, in population, government or legislative area set aside for voting. Sometimes known as a voting precinct, it may be only a few blocks of streets in an urban area, or a widely spread area in rural communities.

Recount: If a vote count following an election is particularly close, a supervised recount may be ordered. Sometimes, a candidate may petition for a recount.

Red state: One of the states in the U.S. which typically votes in the majority for Republican Party candidates.

Right wing: Conservatives. Dating back to the French Revolution, when King Louis XVI sat in the Assembly, the more traditional and conservative members sat to his right.

Robocall: An automated, recorded telephone call on behalf of a political candidate or party.

Runoff election:  Following a general election for down-ballot candidates, if the initial voting did not result in a clear winner, some form of runoff election is held.

Senate: The upper chamber of the U.S. Congress. Each state in the Union has 2 senators elected to staggered six-year terms. The Senate possesses certain advise and consent powers not granted to the lower House of Representatives.

Straw vote: An unofficial ballot designed to learn a general opinion. Also referred to as a straw poll.

Swing state: A state which is neither Red nor Blue, and therefore may determine the outcome of a general election. Some U.S. states which are considered swing states are Florida, North Carolina, and New Hampshire.

Tally: A synonym for vote count.

Third Party: Term for a political party which is independent of the two dominant political parties in the U.S., the Republicans and the Democrats. Third party candidates are rarely successful in getting elected, but they can influence the outcome of an election by taking votes from the other candidates.

Underdog: The candidate who is seen as less likely to win an election.

Vote: As a verb, it is the act of voting. As a noun, it is an affirmation of choice between one or more options. Every citizen has the right to vote, and each vote carries equal importance. The core principle of the United States Constitution is one person, one vote.

Voter: A person who votes.

Voting booth: A private enclosed area in a polling station, generally covered by a curtain or screen, in which a voter casts a vote.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,
Keep learning English with us!

Build vocabulary, practice pronunciation, and more with Transparent Language Online. Available anytime, anywhere, on any device.

Try it Free Find it at your Library
Share this:
Pin it

About the Author: Gary Locke

Gary is a semi-professional hyphenate.