US Election Terms Explained

Ballot measures

Apart from national, statewide and local races, many states have measures on the ballot, which are issues or questions that voters are asked to decide. Topics of this year’s ballot measures include marijuana, voting-related policies and abortion, the latter of which is appearing on ballots in six states. The increase in abortion-related measures follows this year’s Supreme Court decision overturning a national right to an abortion, which gave states the final power to set most abortion laws.

Call a winner

News outlets often “call” a winner before every ballot is counted and before officials announce final results. This is because it often takes days or weeks before all votes are counted in many districts and, often, partial results are enough to mathematically determine a winner. However, when a race is close, news agencies usually wait to call a winner until final results are given. The Associated Press, which calls races throughout the United States, says it “does not make projections and will only declare a winner when it’s determined there is no scenario that would allow the trailing candidates to close the gap.”

Competitive races

Competitive races are heavily followed because both the Democratic and Republican candidates are seen as having a legitimate chance of winning. Most races are not considered competitive. According to Reuters, 43 House races out of the chamber’s 435 seats up for election – or about 10% — are considered competitive this year.


Democrats make up the Democratic Party, one of the two main parties in the United States. Currently, Democrats control the presidency and both houses of Congress. However, the party’s hold on Congress is slim with an eight-seat majority in the House of Representatives and control in the equally divided Senate resulting only because Vice President Kalama Harris can break a tie.

Early voting

Many U.S. states allow citizens to cast ballots in person at a polling station prior to the election. Some states allow anyone to do this (called no-excuse early voting), while other states allow it only for those with a valid reason, such as old age or disability. Forty-six states permit some form of no-excuse early voting, according to the election website Ballopedia.

Election Day

By law, general elections in the United States take place on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. This year Election Day is Nov. 8.

Exit polls

Exit polls are surveys of voters usually taken as they leave, or exit, their polling places. They can be used to project the winner in races where the margin between candidates is large. They are also used to collect demographic data about voters and gain insights into voters’ motivations, information which is not captured at the ballot box.

Legislative branch

The legislative branch of the U.S. government refers to the U.S. Congress, which is made up of two chambers, the House of Representatives and the Senate. It makes laws that govern the country. The other two branches of the U.S. government are the executive branch — which includes the presidency and most federal agencies and is responsible for carrying out the laws — and the judicial branch, which evaluates laws. A similar three-part structure is found in U.S. state governments.


Elections that take place two years after a presidential vote, or halfway through a president’s term, are called “midterms.” They are often seen as a referendum on the sitting president’s policies because they are the first national vote after a presidential election.

Mail-in ballots/Absentee ballots

These are ballots that are usually mailed by voters to election offices in sealed envelopes. Some states allow voters to return their absentee or mail-in ballots in person to voting centers or municipal offices.

Mail-in voting

Every U.S. state allows at least some of its residents to vote by mail, according to the election website Ballopedia. Some states, like California, mail a ballot to every resident in the state, while others, like Texas, allow mail-in voting only for residents with a valid reason, such as old age or disability.


States redraw district lines every 10 years to take into account population changes. The process is meant to ensure that districts accurately represent the current population, but often become marred by politics with both Democrats and Republicans seeking to create districts that will benefit their party. The 2022 midterms will be the first national elections to occur since redistricting took place in 2020. Republicans are positioned to gain three to four House seats in 2022 due to redistricting alone, according to an analysis of data by Five Thirty Eight, a website that focuses on analysis of political opinion polls.


Members of the U.S. House of Representatives are called “representatives.” The House is one of two bodies in the U.S. Congress along with the Senate. Because all House members serve two-year terms, the entire House of Representatives — with its 435 seats — is up for election during the midterms. House members represent a portion of their state known as a congressional district, which averages nearly 750,000 people.


Republicans make up the Republican Party, also called the GOP, one of the two main parties in the United States. Currently, Republicans are the party out of power, controlling neither the presidency nor a majority in either chamber in Congress. They are looking to win one or both houses of Congress during the midterms. Because of a historical tendency for the president’s party to lose seats in the House during midterms, Republicans are seen as the favorites to win at least one congressional chamber.


This is the title given to members of the U.S. Senate, one of two bodies in the U.S. Congress along with the House of Representatives. Because senators serve six-year terms, only about a third of the Senate – with its 100 seats — is up for election during the midterms. Each U.S. state has two senators that it sends to Washington.

Swing states

States where the two parties have similar levels of support are known as “swing states” because either party could easily win them. Swing states can shift over time and are also known as battleground states, toss-up states or purple states (the color resulting from a mix of the traditional Democratic color – blue — and the Republican color — red).

Turnout for midterms

Historically, the turnout — the number of people who vote in an election — is lower during midterms than in presidential election years. The average turnout in presidential elections between 1980 and 2018 was 56.7% of registered voters, while the midterm turnout for that same period was 40.5% according to data from the U.S. Election Project.

Voter fraud

Voter fraud has been a national topic of conversation since the 2020 presidential election when then-President Donald Trump alleged without evidence that the vote was tainted by fraud. Leading up to the vote, Trump also argued that mail-in balloting was less secure than in person votes, while Democratic leaders argued voting by mail was just as secure and would make it easier for people to vote. One result of that debate was that over the past two years, Democratic-controlled states, like Vermont, were more likely to increase access to voting by mail, while Republican-controlled states, like Texas, were more likely to restrict it. The integrity of the U.S. election system is likely to again be up for debate during this year’s midterms.

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