Better late than never: election language

“What is the difference between ballot, vote and poll?” Carlos Serrano from Colombia e-mailed over the weekend in preparation for election night. “How should I use each of these words?”

Great questions, Carlos, and thanks for asking.

The seemingly endless presidential campaign of 2014, 2015 and 2016 finally ends tomorrow — we hope (cf. 2000). Some CUNY journalism students will be in the newsroom working with the Electionland National Reporting Project; others may be out reporting their own projects. International students like Carlos, especially those in their first semester, may find they’re still a little confused by U.S. election terminology.

An excellent cheat sheet is the Associated Press Election 2016 Topical Guide, part of the AP Stylebook online. It includes not only definitions and style guidelines (What’s a precinct? Should president be capitalized?) but also a mini-glossary of political idioms (dark horse, swing state). Anyone reporting on U.S. elections for the first time would be well advised to read through it before starting to write.

Now, to answer Carlos:

The ballot is the list of candidates from which voters make their selections — as a collective noun, everyone who’s running — or an actual piece of paper on which they vote (these days, scanner sheets). When you vote, you (idiom) cast your ballot. So:

This year there are two third-party presidential candidates on the ballot. (Yes, they’re both third-party, even though they make a total of four.)

In 2000 some Florida voters had trouble marking their ballots correctly.

As a verb, vote means to choose between candidates or positions: Do you plan to vote tomorrow? As a noun, it’s the voter’s formal indication of that choice (You’ve got my voteor a collective term for votes cast (the Hispanic vote; get out the vote).

Poll can refer to an opinion survey when used as a noun (the only poll that counts is the one on Election Day) or a verb (Clinton is polling slightly ahead today). As a plural noun, the polls, it means polling places where people vote. (Go to the polls = vote.) But note that AP frowns on head to the polls: “Avoid. Such a phrase does not account for the as much as 40 percent of the electorate that will cast a ballot before Election Day.” Not to mention those who won’t vote at all.

Good luck tomorrow night, Carlos. Good luck, America.

LATE-BREAKING UPDATE: For those who are still confused about the Electoral College (and who isn’t?), this video from can help.










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