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Voting and Civic Engagement

Learn how to become active in your nation, your state, your local community, and at UNT!

Understanding Voting and the Political Process

Political participation and voting has its own vocabulary. Don't be intimidated by this new lingo, be informed and empowered by understanding the language of voting and political participation.

The following vocabulary lists were inspired by and compiled from the following: 

Voting Vocabulary

Political participation and voting has its own vocabulary. Don't be intimidated by this new lingo, be informed and empowered by understanding the language of voting and political participation.

  • Absentee Voting: A process of voting when a person cannot get to their polling location in person. Each state has specific laws for who can participate in absentee voting. (Absentee Voting in Texas)
  • Abstain: The act of choosing not to vote.
  • Apathy: A lack of interest or concern.
  • Ballot: Either paper or electronic form a voter uses to mark their choice of candidate or initiative.
    • Ballot Box: Receptacle used to hold completed ballots to be counted. Some ballot boxes count ballots electronically.
  • Ballot Initiative: an issue for which voters decide that changes the law. Voters may see municipal or county ballot initiatives. In Texas, at the state level of government, these typically appear as state constitution amendments -
  • Blanket Primary: A primary election where all candidates from all parties are on the same ballot (see also: Primary and/or Closed Primary).
  • Campaign: The act of gathering support for a candidate or initiative.
  • Candidate: A person who is seeking public or political office. A candidate can be self-selected or put forward by a group or organization.
  • Citizen: A native or naturalized member of a country or state.
  • Closed Primary: A primary election in which the candidates of only one party are on the ballot. Voters in states where party affiliation is registered they must vote in their party's primary. In states where political affiliation is not registered, votes can only be cast in one party's primary.
  • Down-Ballot Races: an election or races that appears farther down on the ballot. Races appear in order from federal to state to local, thus local races are often considered down-ballot
  • Electoral College: The body that selects the President and Vice President. The electoral college was created by the U.S. Constitution.
  • Electorate: Those eligible to voter.
  • Franchise: The Constitutional right to vote.
  • General Election: State-wide elections in which registered voters decide who will lead state and national government.
  • Midterm Election: a general election that does not occur during a presidential election. Midterm elections decide races for the Congress as well as state and local elections.
  • Party Platform: Statement of the principles and beliefs of a political party. In Texas, voters voter to endorse their party's platform, typically during a primary election.
  • Precinct: A division of voters by neighborhood. In Texas, precincts are determined by the County Commissioners Court, as prescribed in the Texas Election Code.
  • Provisional Ballot: A ballot that can be used or requested when a person's voting status is called into question. Provisional ballots are counted once the person's voting status is confirmed. (If you arrive at your polling location and are not immediately found to be registered in that county or precinct, you may request a provisional ballot. It is best to confirm you are registered in the location where you plan to vote, or request an absentee ballot.)
  • Poll or Polling Place: A place where voters cast their vote(s).
  • Swing Vote: The undecided, often independent, voter that can swing the election to one party/candidate.
  • Two-Party System: a political system in which the majority of the electorate gives its votes to one of two major parties. 
  • Voter: A citizen who has the legal right to vote.
  • Voter Guide / Voting Guide: Information about candidates and issues in an upcoming election. See the Voting Resources section for more information and links to Voter Guides. 

Political Vocabulary

This set of terms applies more broadly to politics and the political system.

  • Amendment: A change to the Unites States Constitution or a state constitution. A constitutional amendment must be approved by voters.
    Here are a few amendments you might have heard of: 
  • Bias: A leaning for or against something; prejudice
  • Bill: Proposed legislation. A bill must be approved by the House, Senate, and president or government to become law. Other types of legislative actions include resolutions, continuing resolutions, joint resolutions. See How Laws are Made for more information. 
  • Bill of Rights: The first 10 amendments to the United States Constitution. These include freedom of speech, right to bare arms, freedom of religion, and protection against unlawful search and seizure among others.
  • Bipartisan: Support for a bill, cause, action, etc. is supported by both of the two major parties.
  • Caucus: A meeting or conference of members of a legislative body within a political party or other defining factor. A few examples include the Congressional Black Caucus. the Iowa Caucus, or Climate Solutions Caucus.
  • Congress: The legislative branch of the U.S. government as defined by Article I of the U.S. Constitution.
  • Congressional District: An area of a state from which a member of the U.S. House of Representatives is elected and for whom they serve. Congressional districts are apportioned by population every 10 years, following the Decennial Census. Currently there are 435 Congressional Districts. GovTrack offers a nice map of current congressional districts:
  • Constitution: A fundamental governing document. 
  • Democrat: A member of the democratic party. See for information on the national democratic party. 
  • Democracy: A form of government in which people hold power by voting for those who represent them to legislate. 
  • Federal SystemA government in which power is divided among states and a central government. 
  • Gerrymandering: The practice of drawing districts of government that favor one party over another. Check out this video from the Washington Post for Gerrymandering Explained.
  • Governor: A person elected to head a state government. 
  • Grassroots: Involvement of common citizens in a political activity or movement. The Wikipedia offers a nice overview of Grassroots activism in the U.S. 
  • Hard Money: Money donated directly to a political campaign by an individual. See Follow the Money for information about political donations and spending. 
  • House of Representatives: One of the two houses of the U.S. Congress. The House of Representatives is considered the lower house. House representation is based on population. Members of the House have always been voted on by the people.  See for more information. 
  • Inauguration: The act of swearing in a new government leader. 
  • Incumbent: The person currently holding a political office. 
  • Law: A legislative act that has been approved by both houses of congress and the president at the federal level or a state legislature and governor at the state level.  
  • Lobbyist: Someone who represents the specific interests of a group, industry, company, cause, or activity. Lobbyists are required to register with the federal government. See this link for more about lobbyists:
  • Nonpartisan: Something that is not influenced by any political party. 
  • Partisan: Something that is influence by a political party. 
  • Policy: The stance or role of a political body on an issue.
  • Political Action Committee or PAC: An organization that supports, typically through fundraising, a candidate, party, or position. The Center for Responsive Politics offers a good description of a PAC
  • President: The elected head of a government.
  • Referendum: A legislative action.
  • Resolution: A legislative action. See Bill above. See How Laws are Made for more information. 
  • Senate: One of the two houses of Congress defined in Article I, Section III of the Constitution. Often referred to as the upper house. Until 1913, Senators were chosen by state legislatures rather than being voted on by the general populace. See for more information. 
  • Soft Money:  See Follow the Money for information about political donations and spending. 
  • Republic: A form of government in which the people hold the power but vote on representatives to carry out the actions of governing. 
  • Republican: A member of the Republican party. See for more information. 
  • Veto: The action of a president or governor to refuse a legislative action. A veto may be exercised over the entirety of a bill or just to parts, this is known as a line item veto. Congress can accept the veto or try to overturn the veto with 2/3 majority vote. 
  • Vice President: The presiding officer of the U.S. Senate who is also first inline to assume the responsibilities of the president in the event he or she can no longer fulfill the duties of the office. 
  • Wonk: A studied person who takes extreme interest in political process and policy.

Government Information

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