Voting in the United States is widely billed as a patriotic duty, but it can be a confusing one, filled with unfamiliar rules and terms.
That's in part because of a patchwork of election laws set by state and local leaders. How ballots look, how votes are counted, how vote-by-mail is administered and many other parts of the election process are not determined by the federal government
"It is an archaic system that has created confusion and even crisis in the past and will, no doubt, continue to do so in the future," Larry Bartels, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University, said in an emailed statement.
Even so, many election-related terms have commonly understood meanings across the nation that can help you understand ongoing election news, become a better informed voter and make sure your vote counts on Election Day.
Election-related fraud can be committed by voters, elections officials, campaign officials or others, according to the FBI. Campaign-finance violations are also a type of federal election offense.
A voter commits fraud when the person lies on voter registration, votes when not eligible, votes multiple times or votes under someone else's name.
How often fraud occurs has become a charged political topic. While President Donald Trump has made unsubstantiated claims that “millions and millions” of fraudulent votes cast in the 2016 election had cost him the popular vote, a task force studying the issue disbanded seven months after its first meeting with no report substantiating fraud.
Under the Constitution, each state appoints electors to cast the electoral ballots, which officially elects the president. It takes 270 or more electoral votes to win a presidential election.
The Electoral College is widely known as a "winner take all" system, because the winner of the popular vote in each state gets all of the state’s electoral votes. That is, with the exception of Maine and Nebraska, which award electoral votes more proportionally.
The Electoral College played a major role in Trump's 2016 victory. The practice traces its history to 1787 and was intended as a compromise between a direct popular vote and Congress picking the president. States are allocated electors based on how many representatives it has in the House, plus its two senators.
Five candidates in history have won the popular vote only to be denied the presidency by the Electoral College.
Poll workers check in voters, fix voting machines, answer voters' questions, count mail-in votes and other election-related jobs, according to Power the Polls, a poll worker recruitment group that has worked to combat a shortage of poll workers fueled in part by health concerns amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Laws governing poll workers vary by state, as detailed the 200-page U.S. Election Assistance Commission guide.
It's generally a nonpartisan activity, and some states have laws to make sure there's a balance of Democrats and Republicans working in the polls, Power the Polls says. Poll workers are often required to be registered voters.
Poll watchers are partisan or nonpartisan observers who are usually trained to monitor polling places and look for irregularities. Poll watchers are not allowed to interfere with the conduct of the election, but they may challenge the voting process, or in some cases, an individual's eligibility to vote.
Some form of poll watching is allowed in most states, but rules vary. Those rules are often aimed at ensuring observers won't harass or intimidate voters.
Even so, forms of poll watching have perpetuated racism and been used to intimidate voters. There is a long history of whites intimidating and preventing Blacks from voting in the South. The Republican Party had been prohibited from employing poll monitors until recently because of its own history of using them as a strategy for intimidation.
Generally, the terms poll watchers, poll monitors and citizen observers are interchangeable.
A recount is a retabulation of votes to verify initial results.
"Especially in local contests, with lower voter turnout, it is not uncommon for a handful of votes to determine the outcome of the election," guidance from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission reads. "A recount provides an opportunity for an election official to ensure that all the ballots cast are counted accurately and that the correct candidate or ballot issue wins."
How close does an election have to be to trigger a recount? That varies by state. But the Commission says in some cases, a recount is triggered by an election being within by 0.5 or 1% of the vote.
As polls close on election nights, various news organizations will begin tabulating and verifying voting data and publishing results. When the organization has a high level of confidence in the result of a race, it will "call" it.
News reports in the hours and days after an election are typically separate from the certified results of a race. Because each network or newspaper has its own sources and standards, it is common to see results vary between different news outlets in the hours – and sometimes days – after the polls close.
The Associated Press says its process was 99.8% accurate in calling U.S. races in 2016 and 100% accurate in calling the presidential and congressional races for each state.
In 2020, it could take days or weeks to count all ballots because of the high volume of mail-in ballots expected during the coronavirus pandemic.
Voting by mail
All states allow voting by mail, but the rules in each state vary.
As Dictionary.com explains, "mail-in ballot" generically describes voting by mail. An "absentee ballot" typically requires a voter who is unable to vote in person to request a ballot, which is often returned through the mail.
And "all-mail voting" is used in multiple states where all register voters are automatically sent a ballot. That's also called "universal" mail voting by some, including Trump.
This year, voters in at least 45 states will be able to vote by mail in the elections in November as absentee voting was expanded for safety reasons amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Contributing: Josh Peter, Joey Garrison, Karl Gelles and Jim Sergent, USA TODAY; The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Election day 2020: Electoral college, voter fraud, recounts