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Election Activities
US Elections

US Constitution
Introduction to Elections How the US President is Elected Election Activities Election Glossary

US Election Glossary

absentee ballot - a mailable paper ballot that is used by voters who will not be able to vote (or choose not to vote) at their home precinct on election day (like military personnel stationed overseas). The voter mails the absentee ballot before election day and it is counted on election day.

ballot - a piece of paper listing the candidates running for office. A ballot is used to cast a vote.

ballot box - a box in which votes are placed.

ballot initiative - also called a ballot measure, referendum or proposition. A ballot initiative is a proposed piece of legislation (a law) that people can vote on.

Bill of Rights - the Bill of Rights is the first 10 amendments to the US Constitution. These amendments were ratified on December 15, 1791. The Bill of Rights was proposed to ensure that individuals would have civil rights and could avoid the tyranny of an overly-powerful central government.

bipartisan - supported by members of the two major political parties (the Democrats and the Republicans).

bicameral - consisting of two legislative branches, like the US Congress, which consists of the House of Representatives and the Senate.

blanket primary - a primary election in which the names of all the candidates for all the parties are on one ballot.

butterfly ballot - a type of paper ballot in which the actual voting is done by the central fold of a two-page, pamphlet-like ballot (the two open pages are like a butterfly's wings; the voting is done where the butterfly's body would be).

campaign - a series of political actions (like advertisements, public appearances, and debates) that are used to help a candidate get elected to office.

candidate - a person who is running for an office.

caucus - an informal meeting at which potential voters and candidates (or their representatives) talk about the issues and their preferred candidate, and then decide which candidate they support and which delegates to send to their political party's convention. Not every US state has caucuses.

census - an official count of the number of people in a region. The survey is done by a government, usually periodically..

chad - a tiny bit of paper that is punched from a ballot using a punch-type mechanical voting machine.

closed primary - a primary election in which only those voters who have registered as belonging to a particular political party can vote. For example, if it is a Republican primary election, only those people who are registered Republicans can vote (since that election is to choose the Republican candidate who will eventually run for office in the general election).

Congress - the US Congress, which makes the country's laws, is divided into the Senate and the House of Representatives. There are currently 100 Senators (2 from each state) and 435 members of the House of Representatives (Representatives are divided by population among the states, with each state having at least 1 representative).

Congressional district - an area within a state from which a member of the House of Representatives is elected. There are 435 Congressional districts. Each district has about 570,000 people. Seats (positions) in the House of Representatives are reapportioned every 10 years; since the number of Representatives is set to 435, some areas lose Representatives and others gain some.

conservative - people who generally like to uphold current conditions and oppose changes. Conservatives are often referred to as the right wing.

convention - an official meeting of the delegates of a political party at which they choose their candidates and decide upon their party platform.

debate - A formal, public political discussion involving two or more candidates for office. In a debate, candidates state and defend their positions on major issues. Debates are often held in public places or are broadcast on radio, TV, and/or on the Internet.

delegate - a person who is chosen to represent a local political party at a political convention.

Democrat - a person who belongs to the Democratic political party.

Democratic Party - a major US political party. The symbol of the Democratic party is the donkey. The first Democratic US President was Andrew Jackson.

democracy - a form of government in which people hold the power, either by voting for measures directly or by voting for representatives who vote for them.

election - a process in which people vote to choose a leader or to decide an issue.

Electoral College - a group of people who formally elect the president of the USA (their vote happens after the popular vote). The Electoral College is composed of delegates from each state (plus the District of Columbia). (The number of delegates from each state is equal to the sum of that state's Senators plus Representatives.) According to the US Constitution, the electors (chosen by popular vote) assemble in their respective state capitals on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December and vote for president. Electors are supposed to vote for the candidate who received a plurality of votes in the state or area they represent. To become president, a candidate must get more than half of the Electoral College votes (270 out of 538 votes).

Executive Branch - the part of the US government that administers the laws and other affairs of the government; it includes the President (also called the Chief Executive), the President's staff, executive agencies (the Office of Management and Budget, the National Security Council, etc.) and Cabinet departments (like the State Department, the Dept. of Defense, the Dept. of Agriculture, etc.).

exit poll - an informal poll taken as people leave the voting booth. Exit polls are used to predict the outcome of the election before the polls are closed.

Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) - a law passed in 1971 (and amended in 1974, 1976 and 1979) that limits the financing of campaigns for federal elections. The law requires that candidates and their political committees let the public know who gives them money and how they spend that money. The law also regulates the public funding of presidential elections.

front runner - a front runner is the political candidate who looks as though he/she is winning.

general election - an election that is being held throughout the country on the same day.

gerrymandering - a process in which a voting district is broken up or the physical boundaries of a voting district are changed in order to make it easier for one political party to win future elections. The term gerrymander was coined in 1812 when a county in Massachusetts was redistricted into a salamander-like shape by Gov. Elbridge Gerry for political purposes. His last name was combined with the word salamander to get "gerrymander."

hanging chad - a chad is a tiny bit of paper that is punched from a ballot using a punch-type mechanical voting machine. A hanging chad is a chad that did not completely detach from the ballot. When there is a hanging chad, that vote may not be counted correctly.

House of Representatives - the House of Representatives is part of Congress; they propose and vote on legislation (laws). There are 435 members of the House of Representatives (divided by population among the states, with each state having at least 1 representative). There are 435 Congressional districts. Each district has about 570,000 people. Seats (positions) in the House of Representatives are reapportioned every 10 years; since the number of Representatives is set to 435, some areas lose Representatives and others gain some. Representatives are elected to a term of 2 years.

incumbent - a person who is currently in office.

independent - a person who is not associated with any political party.

Judicial Branch - The part of the US government that settles disputes and administers justice. The judicial branch is made up of the court system, including US District Courts, many Federal courts, the US Court of Appeals (also called the Federal Circuit Courts), and the Supreme Court.

Legislative Branch - the part of the US government that makes the laws and appropriates funds. The Legislative Branch includes the US House of Representative and Senate (plus congressional staffs and committees) plus support agencies (like the General Accounting Office, the Congressional Budget Office, the Library of Congress, etc.).

liberal - people who generally like to reform current conditions. Liberals are often referred to as the left wing.

Libertarian - a person who belongs to the Libertarian political party.

lobbyist - people who are associated with groups (like labor unions, corporations, etc.) and who try to persuade members of the government (like members of Congress) to enact legislation that would benefit their group.

majority - more than half of the votes.

matching funds - public money that is given to presidential candidates in an amount equal to the amount that they have raised privately. During the primary season (before the convention), candidates who use matching funds may get up to $250 in matching funds for each individual contribution they get. The matching funds are mostly financed by U.S. taxpayers (they can check a box to give $3.00 of their taxes when they pay their federal income taxes).

McCain-Feingold Law - also called the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. It is a law that attempted to reduce the influence of people giving "soft money" to politicians. The law limits the amount of "soft money" that can be given to a political party and how much can be spent on political advertising. This law was named for its sponsors, John McCain, Republican Senator from Arizona, and Russell Feingold, Democratic Senator from Wisconsin.

midterm election - a general election that does not coincide with a presidential election year, but occurs two years into the term of a president. In a midterm election, some members of the US Senate, all members of the House of Representatives, and many state and local positions are voted on.

motor-voter bill - a bill passed by Congress in 1993 that lets US citizens register to vote when they apply for a driver's license.

negative ads - political advertisements that attack a candidate's opponent, often trying to destroy the opponent's character.

open primary - a primary in which all registered voters can vote, regardless of which party they have registered under.

platform - a formal written document that states a political party's stances on important issues and its goals for the future.

plurality - in most elections, the person who gets more votes than anyone else is the winner (even if it isn't more than half of the votes). That person is said to have a plurality of the votes.

Political Action Committee (PAC) - PAC's are political groups that are not formally related to a particular political party, but are associated with other groups (like labor unions, corporations, etc.). PAC's try to influence elections and candidates by giving money to them so that they can later have laws passed that would favor their group.

political party - an organized group of people with common values and goals, who try to get their candidates elected to office. The Democrats and the Republicans are the two major political parties in the USA today.

politician - a person who is running for office or has won an election and is already in office.

poll - a survey of people (usually voters) that is taken to find out which candidate or issue they might vote for.

poll tax - money that must be paid in order to vote. There used to be poll taxes in some places in the USA; this tax kept many poor people from voting since they could not afford to pay the tax. The 24th Amendment to the Constitution (ratified in 1964) made poll taxes illegal.

popular vote - the result of the votes of the eligible voters. The winner of the popular vote usually wins the election (but not always - sometimes the outcome of the vote of the Electoral College is different).

precinct - the smallest geographic area in US voting subdivisions, in which local party officials are elected. A precinct usually has from 200 to 1,000 voters in it. Each precinct has an elected precinct captain (the neighborhood party leader). The purpose of a precinct is vote for a candidate and to elect delegates who will go to the city or county convention, and relay the precinct's vote for that candidate.

primary election - an election that chooses a political party's candidate for office. The winning candidates from each party will later go up against each other in the general election.

protest vote - a vote for a third party candidate (who is not likely to win) that is meant to show displeasure with the mainstream candidates or parties.

redistricting - a process in which the physical boundaries of a voting district are changed.

referendum - also called a ballot measure, initiative or proposition. A ballot initiative is a proposed piece of legislation (a law) that people can vote on.

representative democracy - a government in which the adult citizens of the country vote to elect the country's leaders. These elected leaders make the governmental decisions.

Republican - a person who belongs to the Republican political party.

Republican Party - a major US political party also known as the G.O.P. (standing for the Grand Old Party). The symbol of the Republican party is the elephant. The Republican party was founded as an anti-slavery party in the mid 1800s. The first Republican US President was Abraham Lincoln.

Senate - the Senate is part of Congress. Senators propose and vote on legislation (laws). There are 100 members of the Senate (two Senators for each state). Senators are elected to a term of 6 years.

soft money - money that is given to a political party but is not given specifically to support a particular candidate. This money is supposed to be used for purposes such as voter registration drives, administrative costs and general political party expenses, but is often used by the parties to help particular candidates.

straw vote - an unofficial vote used to predict how an election might turn out.

suffrage - the right or privilege of voting.

suffragette - a person who campaigned for the right of women to vote. The 19th amendment (ratified in 1920) to the US Constitution gave women the right to vote.

super delegate - a special delegate chosen by the party (not elected); their convention vote is not bound by the popular vote or caucus votes. Super delegates are seated because of their position in the party or government, or are chosen by their state party. Democrats have super delegates.

Super Tuesday - a day on which many primaries are held. This term began in 1988, when many southern states decided to hold their primaries on the same day to try to boost their political importance (in relation to the importance of the New Hampshire primary and Iowa caucuses).

swing voters - voters who do not have allegiance to a particular political party.

term limits - limits on the length of time that a politician can stay in office. For example, the President of the United States is limited to two four-year terms of office.

third party - any political party other than the two major parties (the two current major parties are the Democrats and Republicans).

town meeting - a meeting of the voters of a town in order to discuss and sometimes decide upon issues.

US Constitution - the official document that is the basis of government and law in the United States. It was written in 1787, and ratified in 1789. Many amendments have been added since then.

vote - a way to show your preference and choose elected leaders or decide on initiatives. People can vote by marking a piece of paper, raising their hand, or filling out a form on a computer.

voting booth - a small enclosure in which a person votes.

voting machine - a mechanical device used for voting. There are many different types of voting machines.

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