Glossary of Political Terms




absentee ballot one that allows a person to vote without going to the polls on Election Day

affirmative action programs intended to make up for past discriminations by helping minority groups and women gain access to jobs and opportunities

alien a noncitizen

ambassador an official representative of a country’s government

amendment any change in the Constitution

at-large election an election for an area as a whole; for example, statewide


ballot the list of candidates on which you cast your vote

bicameral a legislature consisting of two parts, or houses

Bill of Rights the first 10 amendments to the Constitution


cabinet a group of advisers to the president that includes the heads of 15 top-level executive departments

caucus a meeting of political party members to conduct party business

census a population count taken by the Census Bureau

checks and balances a system in which each branch of government is able to check, or restrain, the power of the others

citizen community member who owe loyalty to the government and is entitled to protection from it

citizenship rights and duties of members of a state

civics the study of the rights and duties of citizens

civil rights the rights of full citizenship and equality under the law

closed primary an election in which only the declared members of a party are allowed to vote for that party’s nominees

constitution a detailed, written plan for government

constitutional in accordance with the Constitution


delegate a representative to a meeting

democracy a government in which citizens hold the power to rule

direct primary an election in which voters choose candidates to represent each party in the general election


elector person appointed to vote in presidential elections for the major candidates

Electoral College a group of people named by each state legislature to select the president and vice president

electorate all the people who are eligible to vote

executive branch the branch of government that carries out laws

exit poll a survey taken at polling places of how people voted


federal system the sharing of power between the central and state governments

filibuster a tactic for defeating a bill in the Senate by talking until the bill’s sponsor withdraws it


gerrymander an oddly shaped election district designed to increase the voting strength of a particular group

government the ruling authority for a community


impeach to accuse government officials of misconduct in office

incumbent a politician who has already been elected to office


joint resolution a resolution that is passed by both houses of Congress

judicial branch the branch of government that interprets laws

judicial review the power of the Supreme Court to say whether any federal, state, or local law or government action goes against the Constitution


legislative branch the lawmaking branch of government

legislature a group of people that makes laws

lobbyist representatives of an interest group who contacts lawmakers or other government officials directly to influence their policy making


majority a number that is more than 50 percent of the total

majority party in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, the political party to which more than half the members belong

majority rule political principle providing that a majority of the members of a community has the power to make laws binding upon all the people

Medicare government program that provides health care for the aged

minimum wage lowest legal wage that can be paid to most U.S. workers

minority party in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, the political party to which fewer than half the members belong


national committee representatives from the 50 state party organizations who run a political party

nonpartisan free from party ties or bias


open primary an election in which voters need not declare their party preference to vote for the party’s nominees


plank each individual part of a political party’s platform

platform a series of statements expressing the party’s principles, beliefs, and positions on election issues

plurality the most votes among all those running for a political office

pocket veto president’s power to kill a bill, if Congress is not in session, by not signing it for 10 days

policy a guiding course of action

political action committee (PAC) political organization established by a corporation, labor union, or other special-interest group designed to support candidates by contributing money

political machine a strong party organization that can control political appointments and deliver votes

political party an association of voters with broad common interests who want to influence or control decision making in government by electing the party’s candidates to public office

polling place the location where voting is carried out

pollster a specialist whose job is to conduct polls regularly

Preamble the opening section of the Constitution

precinct a geographic area that contains a specific number of voters

public interest group an organization that supports causes that affect the lives of Americans in general

public opinion the ideas and attitudes that most people hold about elected officials, candidates, government, and political issues

public opinion poll a survey in which individuals are asked to answer questions about a particular issue or person


recall a special election in which citizens can vote to remove a public official from office

referendum a way for citizens to vote on state or local laws

roll-call vote a voting method in the Senate in which members voice their votes in turn


seniority years of service, which is used as a consideration for assigning committee members

separation of powers the split of authority among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches

Social Security federal program that provides monthly payments to people who are retired or unable to work

soft money donations given to political parties and not designated for a particular candidate’s campaign

special district a unit of government that deals with a specific function, such as education, water supply, or transportation

special-interest group an organization of people with some common interest who try to influence government decisions

spin a special point of view, emphasis, or interpretation

standing committee permanent committee that continues work from session to session in its Congress

standing vote in Congress, when members stand to be counted for a vote on a bill

swing state a U.S. state that is politically divided so that either Democratic and Republican candidates have a good chance of winning


third party a party that challenges the two major parties

two-party system a system of government in which two parties compete for power


unicameral one-house legislature


veto refusal to sign a bill or resolution
voice vote a voting method in which those in favor say “Yea” and those against say “No”


winner-take-all system a system in which the candidate who wins the popular vote in a state usually receives all of the state’s electoral votes

David Martin