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The 2020 general election is the first general election in U.S. history in which more votes were cast before Election Day than on Election Day. With that very fact, we in the media enter our first lesson in the contested vocabulary of election results.

See, semantically, we've been instructed to avoid saying that voters "cast their ballots" this week, according to The Associated Press—rather, it's technically more true to say that voting concluded on Election Day this year.

But even that "Tuesday" remains fraught, as some states will be counting mail-in ballots for another week. 

The fact is, we never have official results on Election Day—we just usually don't have to talk about it this much. 

A full two decades since we collectively learned what the hell a "hanging chad" was, as over 100 million early votes pushed this election toward the nation's highest turnout in over a century, disinformation and misinformation have put our common election-related vernacular back to square one. 

See also: A parachute-reporter's 10-step cheat sheet for covering the South in 2020

As we wade through the mess of the remaining known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns together, some confusing doublespeak is sure to come up in the mainstream media. This is Scalawag's official glossary to what some of the more confusing words you may be hearing in the news actually mean.

First things first, let's get a couple things straight:

Contested Election

  • An election of which the legality or validity of the result is challenged by the losing candidate. It's rare that a contested election results in the other candidate winning, biding the then duly-verified loser time to scramble for a definitely-not-last-minute conciliatory speech.

Election Fraud

  • Interfering with the results of an election via illegal action, like bribes or tampering with voting machines. Election-related fraud can be committed by anyone: voters, elections officials, campaign officials—or, you know, the president—according to the FBI
  • Voter fraud is a type of election fraud that involves an individual taking an illegal action, like double voting. Despite accusations to the contrary, voter fraud is virtually nonexistent, but frivolous allegations have been used to justify restrictive voting laws—like ID requirements and witness signatures for absentee ballots. 
  • Trump has made multiple unsubstantiated claims that "millions and millions" of fraudulent votes cast in the 2016 election cost him the popular vote. A task force studying virtually nonexistent voter fraud disbanded after seven months of investigation, with nothing to report.

Elector/Electoral College

  • Fake math. The antiquated system by which each state is assigned a sum total voting value, based on how many representatives it has in the House, plus its two senators. The 538 members of the Electoral College, called electors, are appointed to cast electoral ballots on behalf of populations that actually do not fall neatly within the grids and graphs that dictate those numbers. With the exception of a few states, electors vote based on how the state they represent voted. Unfortunately, it's those people who officially elect the president, not you.
  • Mississippi voted this week to end a Jim Crow-era constitutional provision that set up an electoral college-like system for their statewide offices. The original was intended to dilute the Black vote. Now, the popular vote alone will decide the victor in races for governor and the state's other top offices. That's how most states elect their statewide seats, which is why some states can swing blue for Governor but red for President.

Voter Intimidation

  • The illegal act of obstructing or interfering with any person entering or exiting the polling place. A federal AND state crime that Trump himself encouraged his supporters (and literal white supremacists) to engage in.
See also: What to do if someone threatens you at the polls

Voter Suppression

  • The non-illegal (sometimes, in fact, built into the law) structural and systematic practice of keeping certain people from voting. This can range from hate speech, to personal threats, to literacy tests, to poll taxes—and much, much more. 
  • See: Stacey Abrams. While Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp was Secretary of State, his office closed 214 polling places in just six years, affecting nearly 1.3 million voters. Seventy-five percent of those voters were in majority-Black counties. Moving a polling place just four miles leads to a 20 percent drop in Black voter turnout. When seven out of nine polling places disappear from a rural county—that's what nearly happened in Randolph County, Georgia, where 62 percent of the population is Black—you do the math.
See also: What do we mean when we talk about voter suppression?

Now that we have that out of the way, here's what we mean when we talk about final counts and tallies—Which, as a reminder, we will not have clarity on for a while.

Ballot Curing

  • The process of correcting a mail-in ballot or other form of voting to match the ever-shifting and dizzying array of signature, envelope, bubble-filling, requirements so that a ballot is not summarily disposed of on account of an errant pencil mark. 
  • Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina, are the only Southern states where election officials are required to inform voters if their mail-in ballots have errors, but the process can take a few days to be notified and the deadlines for making corrections vary.
  • Regardless, it bears repeating that most states don't count all their mail-in ballots until Election Day even under normal conditions, and 22 states—including 12 Trump claimed in 2016—accept postmarked mail-in ballots after Election Day. Yet: "I don't think it's fair that we have to wait a long period of time after the election," Trump said recently. Boo hoo.

Double-voting

  • Intentionally or unintentionally voting twice during an election. At least 28 states expressly classify voting twice in the same election as a felony, with steep punishments. Again, Trump told his supporters to do it anyway, so that's another slowdown to consider. (See above).

Gerrymandering

  • The process of boldly manipulating the boundaries of an electoral constituency to favor one side over another, adding yet another shroud of mystery to the levels of representation through which one's vote must pass in order to be tallied, like: dividing an entire HBCU campus squarely in half so as to ensure that those students' demands can never reach a local simple majority.

Hand-Count/Hand Recount

  • Literally, counting ballots by hand, putting the burden of accountability onto human error. Each state has its own rules and regulations regarding how to resolve electoral counting disputes.
  • Florida requires the margin of difference between winner and loser to fall within half a percentage point of the total number of votes cast in order to trigger a recount. Historically, it has been that very same half of a percentage point that paradoxically influences the entire nation's fate.

Provisional Ballot

  • A way to collect someone's vote even if they can't vote for other reasons at that moment, like if they have the "wrong" form of ID than backwards state laws dictate. A provisional ballot is (intended to be) counted once those "hiccups" are "solved," but in at least 19 states, provisional ballots primarily serve as a measure of "partial" vote, only counting toward national and state offices.

Ranked Choice Voting

  • Kind of like a basketball bracket. Only a handful of cities use this system for local seats, and when it's used for primaries it literally always causes confusion. When a ranked choice contest cannot move forward because there are no further valid rankings on the ballot for continuing contest options, it's called "exhausted." Me and you both, buddy.

Risk-Limiting Audit (RLA)

  • The Democracy Fund defines a risk-limiting audit as "a post-election audit that takes a random sample of voted ballots and manually examines those ballots for evidence the originally reported outcome is correct." It's a way to minimize the wrong outcome in an election and increase voter confidence in results.

As we face the onslaught of takes about how and why the numbers look the way they do, a refresher on some more basic key terms to look out for in those final numbers and statistics:

Absentee Voting 

A type of vote-by-mail that requires a voter to request an absentee ballot from the secretary of state or local election officials office. Generally, an absentee ballot must be requested ahead of each election a voter intends to cast a ballot. Two-thirds of states permit a voter to request an absentee ballot without having to provide an excuse. Several states relaxed requirements for requesting an absentee ballot this year due to COVID-19.

Ballot Drop-Box

A ballot drop-box provides a secure and convenient means for voters to return their mail-in ballot. Drop boxes were available this year to voters in several Southern states, including: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina, Kentucky, and Virginia (plus Washington D.C.).

Curbside voting

Election administrators provide curbside voting to allow persons with disabilities—or COVID-19—to vote outside the polling place or in their cars. These voters' ballots should be processed just like any others.

Mail-in Ballot

Ballots that are sent through the mail. The term is often used interchangeably with absentee ballots. Unlike absentee voting, however, voting with a mail-in ballot does not require the voter to apply for a ballot each election. So while an absentee ballot can be a mail-in ballot, they're not the same thing. Think squares and rectangles. 

Spoiled ballot

A vote determined invalid, usually by a machine, and therefore not counted. This can be determined due to marking mistakes made on the ballot, physically deformed ballots, or because of a protest vote. A person can request that their absentee ballot be purposefully spoiled in order to cast a vote in-person. This is usually the case when someone has not received their absentee ballot in time.

Write-in Candidate

A candidate whose name does not appear on the ballot but is seeking election by asking voters to cast a vote by physically writing in the person's name. However, write in candidates must still be approved beforehand. So yes, your support for Kanye West might have actually counted in some states—but your vote for Seymore Butts did not, unfortunately.

So, let's talk about what actually was decided this week:

Ballot measures

  • Ballot measures are locally proposed changes to the law, which people vote on alongside other offices and candidates.
  • A referendum is when the government proposes a new law, or a change to an existing one, which voters then decide. That's different from an initiative, which is a proposal of a new law or constitutional amendment that is placed on the ballot by petition—drafted by voters and advocacy groups.
  • In Mississippi, Ballot Measure 3 asked voters to approve replacing the state's 1894 flag, which prominently featured a Confederate battle cross design. The new design—featuring a lovely magnolia flower—won.
  • San Antonio voters approved Proposition C, a new 1/8 cent tax to be diverted to support public transportation after its funding expires at the end of 2025.
  • In Florida, voters passed the minimum-wage measure Amendment 2, setting the state's minimum hourly wage to increase from $8.56 in 2020 to $15 in September 2026.

Nonpartisan Race/Elections

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Lovey Cooper

Lovey Cooper is managing editor at Scalawag magazine and the voice of This Week in the South. Her work focuses on policy, justice, and the intersection of politics and culture in the South and Appalachia.