19 Political Questions You’ve Been Too Embarrassed to Ask
"Caucus," "Primary," "Electoral college," "Lame duck"—what do these terms even mean and how the heck did water fowl get involved in politics?
Our mysterious political process
Voting is one of the most important things you can do as an American citizen, yet just 61 percent of the voting-age population voted in the 2016 election, according to the U.S.Census Bureau. While there is no one answer to why people skip the voting booth, one reason may be how confusing many of us find our political system. "Caucus," "Primary," "Electoral college," "Lame duck"—what do these terms even mean, and for the love of Pete how did water fowl get involved?
These are questions we may be too embarrassed to ask, assuming that everyone else already knows and that we'd look dumb by admitting we don't know the difference between the House of Representatives and the Senate. On the contrary; we talked to political experts about the questions they get asked the most and what they consider the basics that every U.S. citizen needs to understand. Discover the U.S. Citizenship questions most Americans get wrong.
Why do I need to vote?
Let's start with the most important question and one legal scholars hear a lot, says Sam Nelson, PhD, chair of the political science department at the University of Toledo and author of Beyond the First Amendment. After all, if you know your state always votes red or blue then what does your one vote matter? "People should remember that there are a lot more races on the ballot besides the president, including offices and legislation that will make a big impact on your local community," he says. Plus it's important to exercise your right to vote, a right our country has fought hard to maintain. Perhaps your one individual vote won't be the tie breaker but taken all together, votes are powerful and the way we interact with our political system, he adds. These 14 quotes about Democracy will make you want to get out and vote.
Why don't we just count up each vote and the person who gets the most wins?
To many people the Electoral College seems unnecessarily complicated and it's true that it was designed for a different time, one without modern communication systems, Dr. Pybas says. But it was put in the Constitution by the Founding Fathers for an important purpose, says Brigid Callahan Harrison, PhD, professor of political science and law at Montclair State University in New Jersey, and author of American Democracy Now. "First off, it provides power to the states, which was an important consideration for the founders," she explains. "But the Electoral College also provides a 'check' against the people—while the founders liked democracy, they were wary of mob rule. The Electoral College keeps the whims of the people in check."
Did you know that the Electoral College runner up used to become the Vice President (1788-1800)? Discover more things you didn't know about the Vice Presidency.
Could a candidate with fewer than 270 votes win?
Technically, yes. It's a rare situation—it's only happened once, in the election of John Quincy Adams—but it is possible for no candidate to get more than 270 electoral votes. In this case the House of Representatives will elect the president from the three candidates who received the most Electoral votes, Dr. Callahan Harrison explains. "With our two-party political system it's very unlikely this would happen today but it's possible, particularly if a third-party candidate were to get a significant number of votes," Dr. Pybas says. Don't miss these other fascinating facts you never knew about America.
Do the electors chosen by the states have to follow their state's choice?
The law varies from state to state but practically speaking, they do, says Barbara Trish, PhD, professor of political science at Grinnell College in Iowa. "In some states electors are legally bound to cast their vote as selected by the state but even if they weren't, the people who are chosen as electors are selected because of their support for a specific presidential ticket, so they will be unlikely to cast their electoral votes otherwise," she explains.
But that doesn't mean it never happens. "We have seen cases in which 'faithless electors' cast their ballots for someone other than the winner of their state's popular vote. For example, in 2016, three of Hillary Clinton's electors voted for Gen. Colin Powell and another voted for Faith Spotted Eagle, an elder of the Yankton Sioux. (The four, all from Washington State, were each subject to a $1000 fine.)," explains Dr. Callahan Harrison. Historically, there have been 67 faithless electors, but none have ever changed the outcome of an Electoral College presidential election, she adds. These are the 10 everyday things no U.S. President is allowed to do while in office.
What is the difference between a primary and a caucus?
Their purpose is the same—to determine a party's nominee (by determining which candidate's slate of delegates will get to go to the party convention, with the ultimate goal of deciding the party's nominee). The difference is in how these contests are conducted, Dr. Callahan Harrison says. Starting in 2020, most states (44) hold "primaries" where voters go into a voting booth and cast a ballot for the candidate of their choice, Dr. Pybas says. However six states (Iowa and Nevada, Kansas, North Dakota, Wyoming, and Maine) will hold a "caucus" which is a special meeting where voters get together to discuss candidates, debate issues, and choose the delegates.
"The caucus system is a little more complicated than a primary which is why more states are moving away from them," he adds.
What are delegates and why do we need them?
When you vote in a primary or caucus, you're actually electing a "delegate." (In the Democratic convention they are simply called "delegates" while Republicans call them "pledged delegates"). A delegate is a person who is committed to and expected to support a particular candidate in the presidential convention. These delegates go to the party convention and they vote to select their party's nominee, explains Dr. Callahan Harrison. These are the U.S. presidential trivia questions everyone gets wrong.
So what's a superdelegate then?
Spoiler alert: They're not superheroes. A delegate can be anybody but a "superdelegate" is an elected official, like members of Congress, governors, former presidents, and so on. (Democrats use "superdelegate" while Republicans use the term "unpledged delegates"). "Unlike delegates, they are 'unbound' and can vote for whichever candidate they want to be their party's nominee," Dr. Callahan Harrison says.
But why do we need these extra delegates, especially if they're just going to vote for whomever they please, regardless? One reason is to inject some degree of "peer review" into the process, Dr. Tish says. It's a way to balance the voice of the rank-and-file voters with that of party insiders, who presumably have more political understanding, she explains.
What's a PAC?
A political action committee is a type of organization established to allow for political fundraising while still abiding by the limits set by federal campaign finance law, Dr. Trish says. "In loose terms, it is like a bank account which people (including corporations, labor unions, and individuals) can contribute or spend money in federal election politics," she explains.
What's the difference between a legislator, congressperson, senator, and representative?
There's a lot of confusion around the different terms used for elected officials so before we go any further, here's a little vocab lesson. We'll start with the easy ones: A "legislator" is a generic term used for any type of elected official who makes laws; A "representative" refers to a member of the House of Representatives and a "senator" is someone who is in the Senate. Now for the complicated one: The U.S. Congress consists of The House of Representatives and The Senate together, but "congressperson" is only referring to a member of the House of Representatives, Dr. Nelson says. While Senators are members of Congress, they are not addressed as a congressperson, he says. (Yes, it's confusing. We don't make the rules.)