Politics, and especially elections, can spark big emotions that result in writing bias or accidental inaccuracies. To prevent writing mistakes, use this AP style Elections Topical Guide. We include explanations that can help you generate stories about presidential elections in accordance with AP Stylebook rules. A list of recent political terms follows the election guide to help you understand and use the new phrases correctly.
Most Common Presidential Election AP Style Reference Terms
Here are the most commonly used terms referenced in AP style presidential election stories.
Advance Voting, Absentee Voting, Early Voting, Mail-in Voting
The act of allowing voters in some states to cast ballots before November 3rd is called advance voting. Each electoral system has an advanced voting procedure, including voting in person, absentee voting, or voting by mail.
Absentee voting occurs when someone requests a ballot to be sent to their home because they will not be able to vote in their state of residence on Election Day. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, those states that allow absentee voting permit anyone to request an absentee ballot. Some states are even sending instructions to registered voters on how to request an absentee form.
Some electoral systems rely primarily on mail to conduct business. For those states, using terms such as mail-in voting, mailed votes, and mail voting is acceptable.
For states with many voting options, using the preferred phrase advance voting can eliminate reporting bias that early voting may create.
Report voter fraud with care. The AP Stylebook stresses that President Trump claims mail-in voting can cause widespread fraud. However, multiple state reviews and officials in the Trump administration challenge this idea and say there have been no signs of significant fraud.
Compound modifiers should be hyphenated:
- Ex: According to the governor, advance-voting procedures are well organized this year.
- Ex: The request for mail-in voting forms overwhelmed the office.
- Ex: The number of absentee-ballot votes was expected to be in the millions.
VoteCast is not an exit poll and should not be referred to as such. Conducted by NORC for the Associated Press at the University of Chicago, VoteCast can be used as a secondary reference when referring to the survey or the poll.
When writing about a disputed victory or a disputed election, use caution. Rely on reputable sources to assess the outcome and specify the report’s completeness and accuracy about the vote count.
Recounts should not automatically be considered disputed territory. Many states have automatically recounted voting areas with close election tallies. Candidates are also allowed to request recounts in many areas.
If one candidate disagrees with the election outcome, do not report it as disputed. If there is evidence of misconduct or fraud, the contest then becomes a disputed election.
- Ex: No one disputed the race, but the vote recount began immediately upon finding there was a difference of fewer than 200 votes between the candidates.
- Ex: When three counties were not included in the state’s final voter tally, Alexander Quinten disputed the outcome of the election.
Election returns are typically considered outdated the moment they are published. Use sparingly. Early returns and inaccurate first vote counts are sometimes blamed but don’t rely on initial counts to accurately reflect the winner of the election. There are some states that require weeks to count provisional and advance ballots.
At the conclusion of the race, and once the state is called, describe the candidate’s victory in terms of percentage points instead of exact voting numbers. Report the state of the vote count, not the count itself. Also, since vote counts differ between reports from moment to moment, never state an exact number.
- Ex: When the state called the race last night in Michigan, there were over 4.7 million counted votes, and less than an estimated 20,000 votes between Clinton and Trump.
- Ex: The Wisconsin race was close and resulted in a narrow victory for Trump of approximately 1 percentage point.
The United States assigns electoral voters from each state according to the number of residents living within that state. There are 538 members in the Electoral College, which are assigned to equal the number of representatives in the Congress. The District of Columbia is the exception because it has three members in the college but no representatives in the legislature.
To win a presidential race, one party must collect 270 electoral votes. The electoral votes are determined by the state’s election and popular vote numbers. Sometimes the electoral votes are split, but more commonly, the votes are presented to one candidate. Capitalize Electoral College, but use lowercase when citing electoral vote(s).
The electoral system has been split five times since its inception. The latest example was in 2016 when one candidate won the popular vote, and the other candidate won the presidency.
- Ex: The Electoral College decided to wait to cast their electoral votes until after lunch.
When one of the major multi-media sources such as ABC or NBC conducts an in-person survey or interview at the time individuals are leaving the polling area, it is referred to as an exit poll. The exit polls are run by the National Election Pool and are overseen by AP’s Emily Swanson as the director of public opinion research. Swanson must give consent before AP staff can cite or refer to the poll results.
- Ex: The exit polls showed the voters favored the incumbent mayor.
The difference between majority and plurality can be significant in an election. A majority consists of more than 50% of the votes. A plurality is less than 50%, but involves ballots that still tally to the largest number of votes counted. A plurality often occurs when there are more than two candidates in the race.
- Ex: It came as no surprise when the win ended with a plurality count of 33% instead of a majority of over 50% of the votes because five candidates were vying for the same position.
When a voter marks too many boxes for candidates on a ballot, it is called an overvote.
- Ex: The ballot was discarded when the vote processor noticed an overvote – three presidential candidate boxes had been marked.
Poll Monitors, Poll Watchers, Poll Monitoring, Poll Watching
Partisan or nonpartisan citizen observers that are assigned to oversee ballot counting are known as poll watchers or poll monitors. The individuals are trained in monitoring election offices and polling places to look for irregularities in vote tallies. The observers can also suggest system improvements.
Monitors that favor one candidate, ballot or proposition over another are considered partisan poll watchers. Poll watching for election fairness in local polling offices is established by allowing a select number of chosen individuals from each side to view tabulation to prevent possible contested issues in the counting procedure or voting fairness process.
Watchers can observe, not intervene or interfere, in the election process. However, some states give the poll monitors rights to challenge voter eligibility. If a challenge is presented, a provisional ballot will be cast.
With more than half of the Election Day ballots expected to be cast before the election, the watchers’ power may be extended to monitoring advance voting. The individual ballots may need to be reviewed by both party observers to decide if the ballot is valid.
No hyphen is used when poll monitoring is reported as a noun, but when applying the term as an adjective, hyphenate poll-monitoring.
- Ex: The poll-monitoring procedures were modified in 2020 to allow poll monitoring for advance voting in California.
A precinct is an area inside a town, city or other municipality established for law enforcement or voting purposes.
- Ex: Five polling centers were set up within each precinct to allow voters easy access in casting their vote.
Avoid the term precincts reporting when possible due to the potential inaccuracy represented by the numbers. When states with advance votes offer numbers for precincts reporting, percentages from a single county could skew the numbers. If precincts reporting 100% of the numbers are in, there may still be numerous ballots from early or absentee voting that were not counted. If your story or narrative relies on this information, include an estimated number of outstanding votes with your graphics or text.
- Ex: With 100% of all Alaskan precincts reporting, a win is being celebrated by the Jeremiah Kichler camp. However, there are still an estimated 25,000 absentee votes left to count.
The Associated Press can call election winners based on vote count analysis, precinct data and polling research. Once the race call comes from the AP, it is no longer a projected race. Report it as a win, with no acknowledgment of the source required.
Ranked Choice Voting
When voters rank their candidate choice by preference in an electoral system, it is referred to as ranked choice voting. If no winner can be determined from a majority of cast ballots, the rankings are used to determine the voters’ preference. Avoid using “RCV” to refer to ranked choice voting, unless it is a subsequent reference, and the abbreviation must be used in quotations. No hyphens need to be used in the compound modifier.
- Ex: The ranked choice voting system was used to determine a winner in the Eastern District, but the “RCV” results are now being contested after two boxes of absentee ballots were found under a table.
When a supermajority is required, the candidate must garner support with a threshold majority of 50% plus 1.
If a voter leaves propositions or offices on the ballot unmarked, the ballot is called an undervote.
U.S. Postal Service
Use the full title of U.S Postal Service when first mentioning the agency. Any subsequent references should be capitalized but can be limited to Postal Service.
Votes Counted, Votes Cast
The number of votes counted is not the same as the number of votes cast, so it is more accurate to use the counted subset when discussing election returns. In some states, this number can be expected to change for several weeks after the election.
- Ex: Of the 10 million estimated votes cast, Tillson maintained a constant lead of more than 5,000 votes.
- Ex: For two weeks after the election, the votes counted by the poll committee continued to show Martinez in the lead.
More voters are expected to cast their votes before Election Day than during any time in U.S. history. To accurately report this voting phenomenon, refrain from using phrases about voters casting ballots in “Tuesday’s election.”
- Ex: Once the voting concluded on November 3rd, ballots could be accurately counted.
- Ex: National polls were closed, and voting concluded on Tuesday night.
Additional AP Style Political Terms
When writing AP style political stories, use the following terms.
Unless you refer to the name of the Senate or House as a unit in an official capacity, use lowercase for the adjectives congress or congressional. Capitalize Congress only when referring to the formal name.
When discussing a philosophy or political party, use conservative in lowercase.
Democrat, Democratic, Democratic Party
Capitalize the name of the Democratic Party in the U.S. when referring to its members. Use lowercase when the term is generic.
Democratic replaces Democrat in instances such as Democratic-controlled territory, except when quoting an article.
- Ex: The Democratic senator held a press conference at the golf course last Sunday.
- Ex: Current social values are founded upon past democratic societies.
Vermont’s senator, Bernie Sanders, and New York’s representative, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, embrace a political ideology known as democratic socialism. Capitalize the term only when the candidate represents the Democratic Socialists of America.
- Ex: As a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, Bernie Sanders briefly outlined his political stance.
Always capitalize and spell out district in reference to a geographical area. Use an ordinal number to identify the region.
Ex.: Results from the 2nd District came in just before midnight.
Election Day, Election Night
Capitalize Election Day when referring to the U.S. November elections. Use lowercase when reporting the term election night.
Ex.: Kentucky’s Election Day scenario erupted in confusion on election night.
Emily’s List is an organization focusing on the election and fundraising of women supporting abortion rights.
First Lady, First Gentleman, Second Lady, Second Gentleman
Often used to identify the spouse of the president of the United States, first lady and first gentleman are not official titles, neither are second lady or second gentleman (spouse of the vice president). Use lowercase when using these titles, but when possible, rely on an official title.
Fundraisers are methods used by political parties to raise money for campaigns, events and elections.
Leftist, Ultra-Leftist, Left-Wing
The terms leftist, ultra-leftist and left-wing should be avoided. Use more precise descriptors when writing about political leanings.
When referencing a liberal philosophy, use lowercase.
Majority Leader, Minority Leader
Use lowercase when referring to either the majority leader or minority leader, unless identifying a formal legislative title with a name.
Ex.: Minority Leader Chuck Schumer celebrated with friends after his race was called as a win.
Misinformation, Fact Checks, Fake News
Misinformation is a term used to describe false information about a topic that some individuals may mistake as the truth. Disinformation refers to misinformation that is spread intentionally and created to confuse and mislead society. The false sources can also come from exaggerations, honest mistakes and factual misunderstandings. Use of the term excludes satire, parody and opinions; however, propaganda, hoaxes and news story fabrications are included in this category.
Print materials, social media, broadcasts and websites can all spread misinformation. Even videos, audio recordings, and photographs can transmit misinformation when selectively manipulated or purposefully edited.
When using the term fake news, quotes should be used to signal deliberate falsehoods or exaggerated stories claiming to be news. Use of the term fake news”should be avoided when possible, and the information should be labeled as misinformation. However, be specific when using either term to describe false information by reporting factual descriptions. False claim amplification should be avoided.
When information is in dispute, avoid partiality by labeling the article as fake news. If the term fake news is used in quotes, report on why it was used to report the misinformation and what the foundation of the claim is.
Alternative wording for misinformation and fake news may include erroneous reports, questionable reports, false reports, unverified reports or disputed reports.
Simple fact-checking can aid in debunking misinformation and fabricated stories and should be part of your writing. Research to affirm, verify or disprove leading statements is essential in maintaining copy accuracy and credibility. The goal is to use fact-checking to explain exaggerations, falsehoods and political angles to hold public figures and politicians accountable for what they say.
When an assertion differs from known facts, note the differences. When disputed points or difficult questions require additional reporting, use fact-checking to clarify the issue. When necessary, a separate piece should be written after the fact check.
Note these important points about fact-checking data:
Offer the assertion, state the problem and present correct information. Quote the data being checked and offer all facts. Back your argument with attributions or citations.
Don’t offer personal views when arguing your facts.
A person’s views and opinions should not be checked when they involve preferences or personal tastes, even when the ideas are outside society’s mainstream.
Fact checks can use words instead of statements to prove they are correct or incorrect. Words can stand as false, true, selectively used, exaggerated, mostly accurate, clearly wrong, etc. Use data supported by the facts to prove your fact-checks.
When you cannot confirm reports or statements, or the information can’t be verified immediately, say so. Remember to report your efforts to corroborate the facts.
- (n.) fact-checking
- (n.) fact check
- (v.) to fact-check
The Political Action Committee is often abbreviated as PAC. The organization collects and distributes money to political candidates, campaigns and parties. Federal law in the United States limits legal contributions, and those collected monies may not be given to campaigns by labor unions or corporations. The Federal Election Commission oversees the enforcement of contributions.
PAC may be used as a primary reference, but the full name should be spelled out in the story.
A super PAC is a political organization allowed to spend and raise unlimited donor amounts for political purposes. The money collected by the super PAC can come from unions and corporations, which monies can then independently be donated to federal campaigns without restriction. The donations must be reported to the FEC, but there are no other restrictions as to donation amounts or locations.
The political party of any candidate is pertinent to all reporting on a campaign, issue or election, so always cite the party affiliation.
Political Parties and Philosophies
If the word party is traditionally connected to a political organization’s name, capitalize both the party name and the word party.
- Ex: The Republican Party meeting on Saturday night had more attendees than the Socialist Party gathering held next door.
The political philosophy is reported in lowercase, but when referring to members of a political party, capitalize the affiliation. This includes Conservative, Liberal, Communist, Socialist, etc.
When using a proper name derivative, capitalize it. The adjective or noun forms of philosophical names should be lowercase. The usage should be applied to Marxism, Nazi, fascism, communism, etc.
- Ex: The Communist Party was shocked when the liberal Conservative Party voted that communism and democracy were incompatible.
A specific political description of a candidate’s views or philosophies is better than a generic label of conservative or liberal.
Denote each term of policymaker or policymaking as a single word.
Polls and Surveys
Refer to the AP Stylebook chapter on reporting public opinion surveys and polls for more information. Exaggeration and bias should be avoided.
When proper names end in an “S,” add an apostrophe.
Ex.: Charles Dickens’ novel was banned in four Kansas school systems after the election.
Preelection, Reelection, Reelect
No hyphen is required when using preelection, reelection or reelect.
President, Vice President
When president or vice president is used as a title before a proper name, the words should be capitalized. Use lowercase at all other times. There is no hyphen in vice president when used as an adjective.
- Ex: Vice President Biden stopped to wave at his fans.
- Ex: The president was escorted out of the building by armed guards after gunshots were heard.
Unless used as part of a formal name, presidential is lowercase. Always make presidency lowercase.
- Ex: The presidential limousine was washed by hand every Saturday afternoon.
- Ex: The battle for the presidency raged on for months.
Report the term presidential election in lowercase.
Unless referring to a person with a formal title, use press secretary in lowercase.
QAnon is an internet conspiracy theory promoted by right-wing extremists with apocalyptic beliefs.
Followers believe President Donald Trump is fighting against the “deep state” in a secret government campaign focusing on child sex trafficking by cannibals and satanic pedophiles. Followers read cryptic posts that are randomly published by “Q,” a supposed government insider.
QAnon emerged in 2017 on an anonymous message board, and dedicated followers discovered favored conspiracy theories. The site gained traction with many individuals and groups, including Trump supporters. The FBI issued a bulletin mentioning QAnon in May 2019. The report warned that extremists might become a threat through domestic terrorism and fringe beliefs that were “very likely” to lead to violent crimes.
Some QAnon followers are anxiously waiting for “The Storm.” Supporters believe thousands of operatives in the “deep state” will be gathered and sent to Guantanamo Bay, including high ranked Democratic individuals such as Hillary Clinton.
The movement is sometimes referred to as “cult-like.” Many of the movement’s followers have run for pollical office, including Independent Party and Republican Party candidates.
Trump has not disavowed the QAnon movement.
Republican, Republican Party
Capitalize both Republican and Republican Party. The abbreviation GOP, which stands for the Grand Old Party, can be used as a second reference.
Rightist, Ultra-Rightist, Right-Wing
Due to possible bias, avoid the terms rightist, ultra-rightist and right-wing. Use more precise political descriptions to avoid confusion or bias.
Representative, Rep., Reps.
As the formal title for members of the House, representative may be abbreviated as Rep. or Reps. when used before public names.
The tea party is a populist movement known to oppose the political establishment in Washington. Always use lowercase terms when referring to the group.
AP Style Political Idioms
Note the proper spelling, punctuation and capitalization of these AP style political idioms.
Avoid using the term “alt-right” to signify a political leaning movement toward racism, populism, and other biased groups. If required to use the word “alt-right” when clarifying what the political faction says, qualify and set it apart with quotation marks. Always use a hyphen and make it lowercase. More information is included in the Stylebook for your review.
When referring to anti-fascist groups or individuals, Antifa is often used. The term covers far-left militant groups that resist white supremacists and neo-Nazis. Use the word with a definition or explanation because the term is still generally unknown.
The states that could go either way in an election for the major political candidates are referred to as battleground states. This includes presidential or statewide races.
Black Lives Matter, #BlackLivesMatter, BLM
Black Lives Matter is a 2012 political movement sparked by the death of Trayvon Martin. The global BLM movement’s goal is to eradicate white supremacy and systemic racism and to fight violence against Black individuals. Capitalize the first reference of Black Lives Matter, then it is acceptable to use BLM’s acronym as a second reference.
Many groups claim to be part of the BLM movement and use “Black Lives Matter“ in the group name. There are only 16 affiliates of the Black Lives Matter Global Network. The Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation was created in 2014 after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The organization provides funding and infrastructure to affiliated chapters. Use the group’s full name the first time, and then the BLM network can be employed in any following references.
If citing philosophies such as “blue lives matter” or “all lives matter,” remember they are not formal groups. Enclose all responses to the Black Lives Matter movement in quotes, and use the lowercase.
Unless you can back this term up with data from polls or election results, avoid the phrase close race when describing a political contest.
When a political candidate emerges suddenly from the shadows, the individual is called a dark horse.
The person in the lead in a political race is referred to as the front-runner. Hyphenate the term and use it with care because information can be updated often, and that can make your data inaccurate if the front-runner slips behind.
Head to the Polls
Many voters may choose to vote by mail, so avoid head to the polls when describing the election.
Historically, a kingmaker is someone rich and powerful enough to boost a candidate into public office using their clout.
Populism is the idea and political philosophy promoting the power and rights of the ordinary people in contrast to the elite. Avoid referring to politicians or political candidates as populist unless quoting or paraphrasing texts; however, using the general term is acceptable.
Rank and File (n.), Rank-and-file (adj.)
When referring to ordinary political party members, it is acceptable to use rank and file or rank-and-file.
A stalking horse is a person entering a political race to entice voters away from a specific candidate. The stalking horse then withdraws from the race and endorses an opposing candidate.
Avoid the term surrogate to refer to a person of prominence who campaigns in the name of, or on behalf of, a particular political candidate.
States without a history of voting in favor of solely the Democrat or Republican party in the past three elections are known as swing states.
2020 Election Timeline Notes
The process of seating the winning candidate for U.S. president has led to a legal battle over disputed vote counts in key states. When disputes occur, the government relies on the U.S. Constitution, which established federal law creating a procedure for calling the winner. The procedural steps cover a two-month period. Here are the key details and associated dates:
Election Day in all 50 states begins the process of selecting the next president. However, the voters do not choose the winner. Instead, their votes are represented by state electors that pledge to support one of the candidates. The electorate ballot then signifies the voice of the voters of the state. Voting stops at the close of polls on Nov. 3rd, then the counting begins.
Late November and early December
Most states set a deadline for certification of their voter election results in late November. When the ballot count is disputed, or when one side decides to litigate the results, there is no penalty for missing the established deadline.
The safe harbor deadline, Dec. 8, was established to protect electors from challenges by Congress after this date. Once the state certifies its electors by Dec. 8, Congress cannot ignore or disregard the representatives when making the final tally.
Electors meet within their states by Dec. 14 to cast the state’s ballots for president. If a state misses this deadline, the electors from that region could be excluded from the electoral tally. If an electorate representative is seated between Dec. 8 and Dec. 14, he or she can still vote in the general count. Congress can challenge the newly seated electors, but after the state’s governor certifies the number and voting electors, the number stands.
Dec. 23 is the date the electoral vote numbers are required to be reported to Congress.
The newly elected members of Congress take their seats on Jan. 3 after being sworn in.
All reported electoral votes are counted on Jan. 6. Once the votes are tallied, a winner of the presidential election can be formally certified.
If electoral votes do not show a majority winner, the House of Representatives, under provisions by the 12th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, will vote to name the next president. This is done by allowing each state a single vote for a candidate, and when the delegation’s vote numbers reach 26 for one party, that person becomes president. The Senate uses the same method to choose a vice president.
If Congress challenges electors because of seating irregularities before Dec. 8, or if a state sends competing electorates to Congress, the House or Senate must determine which is the valid representative and which vote counts. This occurred in 1876, and a law passed in 1887 helps clarify the situation, although the issue has never come up again. For that reason, how the procedure may be corrected is still untested.
The U.S. Constitution declares the presidential term will begin on Jan. 20. Inauguration takes place unless Congress is unable to certify a winner. According to federal law, an “acting president” would be designated to stand in until the issue can be settled. If Congress has certified neither the presidential race nor the vice-presidential race by this date, the House speaker becomes acting president. If the Speaker of the House position has not been filled, the Senate’s president pro tempore will become acting president.
By using this AP style Elections Topical guide, you can better ensure that you’re writing about the general election and AP style political terms correctly. Check out more of our articles to learn about AP Style Basics.