All the 2020 Vocabulary You Should Know Before Election Day in America
A pedestrian walks past a large replica ‘I Voted’ sticker at an early voting polling location in Inglewood, California. (Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg)

All the 2020 Vocabulary You Should Know Before Election Day in America

A close election in 2020 could introduce a slew of new voting terms to Americans trying to figure out whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden won the presidency.

The coronavirus pandemic is driving record numbers of people to vote by mail, a process the president has repeatedly -- and inaccurately -- decried as fraud-ridden. Counting all the votes could take days -- or weeks.

If the election is close, the aftermath is likely to spawn controversies and lawsuits over some of the more arcane procedures of elections officials in battleground states.

Here are some of the more significant election-related terms this year:

All the 2020 Vocabulary You Should Know Before Election Day in America


An unprecedented number of Americans are voting by mail this year, a practice that dates to the Civil War. It’s also called absentee voting, a term that some elections officials now avoid because in many states, voters are no longer required to be absent to request a ballot.

BALLOT CURING: Voters whose mail-in ballots have been rejected are typically given a chance to fix the problem, often called a “ballot defect.” But the rules over “curing” a ballot vary, and some states don’t notify voters when they’ve been rejected.

DROP BOX: Amid concerns about slow mail service in some parts of the country, some areas are allowing voters to return mail-in ballots to secure drop boxes. Some Republican officials have sought to limit their use, and Trump has argued, without evidence, that they aren’t safe.

NAKED BALLOT: Voters are supposed to put mail-in ballots inside security envelopes to prevent elections clerks from seeing who they voted for. Ballots that are returned without the extra envelope are called “naked ballots,” and while many states will still count them, Pennsylvania won’t.

POSTMARK DEADLINE: Many states require mail-in ballots be received by Election Day, but voting rights advocates have sued for a more generous policy that would count ballots as long as they are postmarked by Election Day.

SIGNATURE VERIFICATION: Many states require voters sign the outer envelope on mail-in ballots, and those signatures are then checked against ones on file. Voting rights advocates have raised concerns about areas with higher-than-normal rates of rejecting ballots.

UNSOLICITED BALLOTS: This is a term that Trump began using in September to refer to the nine states plus Washington, D.C., that have automatically mailed a ballot to every registered voter for this election. Elections officials object to the term, since anyone who has registered to vote has effectively requested a ballot.

All the 2020 Vocabulary You Should Know Before Election Day in America

Early Voting

Early in-person voting has also surged this year, with voters waiting in long lines on the first day early voting centers opened in states such as Ohio, Florida and Wisconsin. Some states refer to this as “in-person absentee voting” or “advance voting.”

CURBSIDE VOTING: In some areas, voters are allowed to cast a ballot from their car if they have a disability or are vulnerable to the coronavirus. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court sided with Alabama state officials who wanted to bar curbside voting.

All the 2020 Vocabulary You Should Know Before Election Day in America

Election Day

CONSENT DECREE: After a heated gubernatorial race in New Jersey in 1981, the Republican National Committee entered into a consent decree in federal court that limited “ballot security” and aggressive poll watching activities such as hiring off-duty cops to patrol majority-minority precincts wearing matching armbands that might intimidate voters. This is the first presidential election since the consent decree expired.

POLL WATCHER: An official typically designated by a political party or candidate to observe election procedures. At the first presidential debate, Trump encouraged his supporters to try to “go into the polls and watch very carefully,” raising concerns about attempts at unofficial poll watching.

PROVISIONAL BALLOT: People who were mistakenly removed from voter rolls, don’t appear on rolls for some reason or who did not receive a mail-in ballot as requested are allowed by a 2002 law to cast a provisional ballot, which is held and counted after the election if they are later determined to be eligible to vote. Some voters could also cast a provisional ballot if they tried to vote by mail and aren’t sure their vote will be counted.

All the 2020 Vocabulary You Should Know Before Election Day in America

Counting the Votes

Given the surge in mail-in votes and state laws in battlegrounds like Pennsylvania that bar elections clerks from processing ballots until Election Day, it could take longer than usual to learn who won the presidential race this year.

BALLOT PROCESSING: The time-consuming process of verifying voter registrations and checking signatures on mail-in ballots and opening envelopes to remove ballots is called processing. States have a wide range of rules. In Michigan and Pennsylvania, officials say it will likely take them until the Friday after the election to process and count all of the mail-in ballots.

BLUE SHIFT: Historically, late-arriving mail-in and provisional ballots have tended to favor Democratic candidates, a phenomenon known as the “blue shift.” With Democrats voting by mail in much higher numbers this year, one group said that could lead to a “red mirage” in which Republican candidates appear to be winning in early results but lose as votes are counted.

CALLING THE RACE: As ballots are counted, the results are released in batches. Since 1848, the Associated Press has gathered results from around the country to make projections on the winner. Today, many news organizations, including network and cable news, use mathematical modeling of these early results to “call” the winner of various states, often on election night.

CANVASSING BALLOTS: The results shared on election night and the days after are not official until elections clerks have resolved any problems with mail-in ballots, decided which provisional ballots to count and double-checked all the numbers, a process called the canvass.

CERTIFICATION: Once the canvass is complete of ballots, elections officials will certify the results. Typically this happens long after the losing candidates have conceded and news outlets have called the races, but in a close race there may be legal fights over it. Certification deadlines vary from a week after the election to as late as December.

All the 2020 Vocabulary You Should Know Before Election Day in America

CONCEDING THE RACE: Campaigns also watch the returns, and candidates who see that they cannot win typically concede. Concession speeches have no legal effect on a race, and candidates have retracted them.

COUNTING BALLOTS: Once mail-in ballots have been processed, they can be counted. In some states, that could lead to a lag between Election Day ballots, which can be counted immediately, and mail-in ballots which have yet not been processed. States laws vary significantly.

ELECTORAL COUNT: Electors meet in their states on Dec. 14 to cast their votes, and the incoming Congress will meet in a joint session on Jan. 6, 2021, to count them and declare the results. If either Trump or Biden have reached a majority of 270 electoral votes, they will be certified the winner in what is typically a pro forma affair. If not, then Congress would get involved in deciding the race.

SAFE-HARBOR DEADLINE: States have until Dec. 8 to resolve any disputes and certify their results and send a slate of electors to the Electoral College in order for them to be considered conclusive. In a worst-case scenario where a dispute lasts beyond that date, a state risks having its electors uncounted or having its dispute resolved by Congress.

The 2020 election between Trump and Biden will be unlike any other in U.S. history — stay informed and get key race updates sent straight to your inbox.

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