Voting Terminology Made Easy: Everything You Need to Know to Vote in the Midterm Elections
Voting terminology and rules can be confusing, so we’ve broken them down for you with our 411 on election information – everything from registration to the ballot box.
It’s voting season! And for both the primary elections now rolling out and the midterm general election in November, you’ve likely got multiple options on how to cast your ballot, wherever you live. Some states, like Colorado, offer every option under the sun on how to cast a ballot: in-person on Election Day, early voting and registration at vote centers, and vote by mail ballots sent to all registered voters. It’s a voter’s dream come true! Other states are more limited in their offerings. That’s why it’s essential to find out what your state offers.
Options – and confusion about what each state requires – can be somewhat daunting, especially if voting is a new experience for you. How can you vote? Where? And when’s the deadline? It’s a lot to get a handle on, but we at US Vote can help.
Our country is a patchwork of jurisdictions, with different election administration rules in each state. Deadlines and options in California vary from those in, say, Nebraska. So get familiar with your state’s rules and practices!
And you can read the definitions below to better understand the terminology and the processes for the upcoming elections:
Voting Terminology: Top Terms to Know
Midterm primary election:
A federal election held midway between presidential elections in which registered voters in all states select candidates (for federal and state office) who will appear on the ballot at the midterm general election.
Midterm general election:
A federal election held in November mid-way through presidential elections in which voters elect their representatives for federal legislative offices in the Senate and House of Representatives, in addition to other non-national seats, like governor, state representative, or local council member. (Voters do not vote for president or vice president in this election). Every two years one-third of offices for the Senate, and all members of the House of Representative, are up for election.
Polling place voting:
All states permit voters to vote in-person on Election Day at polling places. Your polling place location is usually at the same site for every election – a school, place of worship, government building, etc. – and can be located through your local election office site or through US Vote's State Lookup Tools. Go vote – and get your “I voted!” sticker!
Election Day (Same Day) Voter Registration:
Some states permit voters to both register and vote on Election Day. You’ll likely need to provide some proof of identity and residency to a poll worker, so check your local election jurisdiction’s first.
Absentee Voting with Excuse:
In some states you may only vote absentee if you qualify due to illness, advanced age, or absence from the state or county on Election Day. Check your state's allowed reasons for voting absentee under General Information in US Vote's State Voting Information.
Absentee Voting without an Excuse:
Most states permit voters to request and cast an absentee ballot without any excuse. In these states you can vote absentee for any reason at all. On most local election officials’ websites, you can find a sample ballot before voting. See if your state allows absentee voting without an excuse through US Vote's Voting Methods and Options Chart.
Almost every state provides some way to vote before Election Day, either by absentee ballot (see above), vote by mail ballot (See Vote by Mail below) or through an in-person early voting period at local election offices or other locations. It’s important to know that Early Voting often does not take place at traditional polling places, so check ahead of time so you know where you’re expected to go. “Early voting” often refers to in-person voting options before Election Day at early voting locations, but it may also refer to returning a ballot by mail or in a drop box before Election Day.
Same Day Registration (Early Voting):
Some other states permit voters to register and vote on the same day during an early voting period, with some allowing it on Election Day too. Check to see if your state offers Same Day Registration on US Vote's Voting Methods and Options Chart.
In-person absentee voting:
When requesting an absentee ballot from your local election office, you may usually pick up and complete the ballot at the office during business hours. Contact your local election office for dates and hours.
All-mail voting (or Vote by Mail):
Eight states send each registered voter a vote by mail ballot, which can be returned by mail, in person, or at a drop box. Make sure to register to vote to automatically receive your ballot! If you will be away from your voting residence, however, you will need to request an absentee ballot in order to receive it at your temporary location.
Most states require some form of identification, either a photo ID or documentation such as a utility bill that shows your name and address. Check your state’s voter ID requirements in US Vote's State Voting Information before showing up at the polling place or submitting a completed absentee ballot.
Under the Help America Vote Act, every state is required to provide a voter with a provisional ballot if their identity, residence, and/or eligibility cannot be verified at the polling place. If your registration record cannot be found, request a provisional ballot from a poll worker! Then check your election official’s site to see if it was counted.
In most states, whether you vote by mail or in-person, you’re entitled to a replacement ballot if you make an error. But check your state’s rules as to whether you may obtain a replacement ballot at the polling place after having received an absentee ballot in the mail.
Overseas Absentee Voting / Voting from Abroad:
Voters who reside, or are temporarily outside the United States, have their voting rights protected by the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act. Overseas voters are entitled to register and vote by absentee ballot in federal elections when they apply using the special federal form. One form submitted annually functions as a simultaneous registration and ballot request. Register to vote and request your overseas absentee ballot through US Vote.
Military Absentee Voting:
The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act protects voting rights for members of the U.S. Uniformed Services, merchant marines, and their family members. These voters are entitled to register and vote by absentee ballot in federal elections when they apply using the special federal form. One form submitted annually functions as a simultaneous registration and ballot request. Register to vote and get your military absentee ballot through US Vote.
No matter where you vote, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, you are entitled to an accessible voting location. In many states, too, you may vote curbside due to disability or advanced age. Your local election official can let you know.
In some jurisdictions, under section 203 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), people with limited English skills may be entitled to translation and interpretation services when voting, depending on the percentage of that language’s speakers in the area. Even if your jurisdiction isn’t covered by the VRA, you’re entitled to get assistance from a person of your choice in completing a ballot – just not your employer or union rep.
There you have it – your election terminology glossary. Now that you’ve educated yourself on the “ins and outs” of voting, make sure you know your state’s options. All but a handful (AL, CT, MS, NH, and SC) permit voting by absentee ballot or early in-person voting, in addition to on Election Day.
You can use US Vote's civic data services to get the lo-down on your state's election rules.
And don’t forget to make a plan on how to vote. Get your friends and family involved too. Citizens who make a plan to vote are likelier to follow through on it. Once you form a voting plan, call or text at least three friends to ensure they do the same. If they hear from a friend who’s already planning to vote, they’re likelier to follow through and vote too!
That way, every citizen will be a voter.