As Election Day gets closer and closer (only 60 days from the time of this post!) it’s important to refresh and expand your understanding of civic engagement. Being well versed in the political process is key for successfully submitting your own ballot, and for mobilizing your friends and family to get out the vote this fall.

Between vote-by-mail challenges caused by inadequate USPS funding and poll worker shortages, voting safely this election will be more challenging than ever. These developments further underscore the need to actively learn about voting and prepare yourself to cast your ballot this November. To get started, here are seven important voting terms you should know:

Absentee vs. Mail-in Ballots

Absentee and mail-in ballots are both ballots sent to registered voters who may not be able to vote in-person at traditional polling places. The terms “absentee” and “mail-in” can mostly be used interchangeably, but mail-in is a more general term for voting at home. In some states, absentee ballots are a more specific type: the term can sometimes refer to mail-in ballots for those who must provide an excuse for why they can’t vote in-person. However, the absentee and mail-in voting process are the same: voters receive a ballot in the mail, fill it out, and send it back to the election board.

List Scrubbing or Voter Purges

List scrubbing, sometimes called voter purges, is an often-flawed process of cleaning up voter rolls by deleting names from registration lists. Purges are done to ensure that lists of eligible voters are up to date, but can often disenfranchise eligible voters. Voter purges disproportionately impact communities of color. If you think your name has been purged from the voter rolls, you can request a provisional ballot from your state or county election commissioner and contact your local election board for the next steps. The safest thing is always to check your voter registration prior to election day; if you haven’t checked yet, do so here.

Electoral College

The Electoral College is a group of officials selected to elect the president and vice president, per the United States Constitution. Each state is allotted Electoral College votes based on the state’s population. In the election, the Electoral College votes are allocated based on how everyday voters cast their ballots in the state: in each state except for Nebraska and Maine, the winner of the popular vote receives all of the Electoral College votes for that state. Candidates need at least 270 Electoral College votes to win the election. If neither candidate can reach 270 electoral votes, the election is decided by the House of Representatives.


Delegates are citizens selected to represent their state’s vote at each party national convention. Pledged delegates are allocated to a candidate based on his or her performance in a caucus or primary. Superdelegates are well-known members of the party, often congresspeople, governors, senators, and former presidents, who have the power to vote for any candidate regardless of what happened in their state primary. Candidates must win the majority of convention delegates to be nominated by the party; this year, Joe Biden and Donald Trump received the majority of the Democratic and Republican parties’ delegates, and are those parties’ official nominees for president.

Runoff Voting

Runoff elections are the second round of general elections conducted to determine which of the top vote-getters in the first general election with multiple candidates will be elected in states where a majority vote is required. For example, envision an election where one candidate got 40% of the vote, a second candidate got 35%, and a third candidate got 25%. None of these candidates won the majority of votes, so a runoff election is required. The top two candidates, those that got 40% and 35% of the vote in this scenario, would participate in a second runoff election.

Provisional Ballots

Provisional ballots are ballots cast by voters whose eligibility to vote cannot be proven at the polls on Election Day, typically because they aren’t registered to vote yet or they have been purged from the voter rolls. These provisional ballots are only counted if eligibility is verified later. To be prepared to cast a ballot that counts on Election Day, make sure to bring the identification required by your state and to check your voter registration status here as soon as possible.

Poll Worker

Poll workers are registered voters that set up and close polling places, help voters understand their rights, and protect ballots and voting equipment. Poll workers tend to be older adults, who are at high risk for complications from coronavirus; therefore, there will likely be a shortage of poll workers this year. We need more engaged citizens to volunteer as poll workers: get involved in this critical election year and sign up to be a poll worker to protect the legitimacy of our democracy.

Want to learn more about elections and voting? Follow Outvote on Twitter or Instagram to get updates about the election and take action with partners like When We All Vote and Planned Parenthood. We’ll see you there!

Sep 4, 2020
From the Field