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.)
How is it decided how many members of Congress each state gets?
Every ten years (in years ending in 0) the United States conducts a census, which indicates our total population. Through a process known as apportionment (or sometimes, reapportionment), the population is divided by the number of seats in the House of Representatives (435), Dr. Callahan Harrison says. The Census determines the approximate size of a congressional district and states are then apportioned their number of House members based on their population. The average population of a congressional district is about 711,00 people, though because each state is guaranteed at least one House member, some states (including Wyoming and Vermont) have fewer.
Each state gets two members of the Senate, regardless of population. Don’t miss these 25 secrets your congressperson won’t tell you.
What is the Electoral College?
The United States does not have a one person, one vote system. Rather, each state is given a number of “electors” which together make up the Electoral College and they are the ones doing the actual voting, explains Kevin Pybas, PhD, associate professor of political science at Missouri State University and contributor to the Encyclopedia of American Civil Rights and Liberties. When you cast a vote for president, you’re actually voting for the elector who will represent that candidate. The number of electors in each state is determined by the number of members of the House of Representatives (which varies based on population) plus the two for the members of the senate. Added together, the 435 members of the house plus the 100 members of the senate plus 3 electors for Washington DC equals 538 total electoral college votes. A candidate must get at least 270 electoral votes to win. Find out why Election Day is always on a Tuesday in November.
What’s a superPAC and how is that different?
A “super PAC” is like a traditional PAC in that it acts as a bank account for political campaigns but the big difference is that unlike regular PACs, it can accept almost an unlimited amount of money, Dr. Nelson says. There is one rule, however: They can only spend it on issues and not individuals, so it can’t be used to endorse a specific candidate, he explains. For instance a superPAC may lobby for gun control but they couldn’t lobby for a particular candidate who endorses gun control. Don’t miss the 12 most artful campaign posters of all times.
What is a filibuster?
Ever wonder why sometimes you see senators reading books to an empty room for hours on C-SPAN? They are doing a legislative procedure which allows them to control the floor, called a filibuster. The trick is, that person can’t sit down or stop talking, though the topic doesn’t have to relate to the bill—Huey Long famously described recipes for fried oysters in his 1930 filibuster.
“It’s a tactic when used, or just threatened, can give more power to the minority party than it would normally have by allowing them to have unlimited time, Dr. Trish says. While the House of Representatives limits how long a congressperson can talk, the Senate doesn’t have any restrictions. Many people, including current presidential candidates, are trying to abolish them, saying they are a waste of time.
Does the Supreme Court do anything besides decide cases?
Not really, Dr. Nelson says. The whole job of the Supreme Court is to interpret the laws of the land and make sure they are abiding by the Constitution (or, rarely, if the Constitution needs to be amended), he says.
But that’s a big job! The Supreme Court is the “court of last resort” for cases that wend their way through the 50 state court systems, when a federal question is at stake, Dr. Callahan Harrison says. “It also serves as a court of appeal for the federal courts, and the courts of Military Appeals, International Trade, and Court of Claims,” she explains. “But in choosing which cases to decide, the Supreme Court in some instances both reflects and establishes the top issue concerns in our nation.” Don’t miss the 10 myths about the Constitution many still believe.
If a president is impeached does that mean they have to leave office?
Impeachment and removal from office are two separate things with two separate procedures, Dr. Nelson says. And thus far in our history, while two presidents have been impeached (Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnson), neither was removed from office. “Impeachment is done in the House of Representatives and is essentially and indictment,” he explains. “Once a president is impeached then the Senate conducts a trial, if he or she is convicted by the senate then they are removed from office.” Surprised? There are so many things people get wrong about impeachment.
What if a president refuses to concede an election or leave office, if impeached?
Neither of these situations has ever happened but if a president refused to abide by Congress’ decision, then he or she would be in violation of the law and would need to be removed by law enforcement, Dr. Nelson says. “No action he took during this period would be legal and everything would shut down,” he adds. Read on for more White House trivia.
What is a lame duck?
Despite the weird name, it’s describing a fairly common occurrence, Dr. Nelson says. If a president is not re-elected (either due to a vote or term limit), then during the time between the election in November and the inauguration of the new president, he or she is considered a “lame duck,” he explains. Similarly, if one party loses their majority in an election, during the time between the election and the start of the new session of Congress on January 3rd, it’s considered a “lame duck session,” he adds. “This can be used to the person or party’s advantage since they don’t have to consider re-electibility when making decisions,” he says. “For instance, a lot of presidents have used their lame duck status to pardon federal felons when pardoning them previously would have made them politically unpopular.”
How do you end a filibuster?
The longest filibuster on record is Sen. Strom Thurmond’s (R-SC) effort to block passage of the Civil Rights Bill of 1957. He spoke uninterrupted for 24 hours and 18 minutes. (That’s a long time with no bathroom breaks!) However, if the rest of Senate is getting sick of hearing their colleague blab, they can end the filibuster with a “cloture” vote, meaning two-thirds of senators agree to force the talker to get off the soapbox.
How much can a president do alone?
Presidential powers are spelled out in Article II of the Constitution. “Honestly, those enumerated powers are rather slim,” Dr. Callahan Harrison says. “He or she is the commander in chief, can enter into treaties, and make appointments (ambassadors, cabinet members, Supreme Court vacancies).” This has changed in recent times, however. “The reality is that the power of the president has grown enormously, and in fact, Congress has relinquished much of their Constitutional powers to presidents,” she explains. Read up on the 22 presidential firsts you didn’t learn in school.
U.S. Census Bureau: “Voting in America”
Kevin Pybas, PhD, associate professor of political science at Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri, and contributor to the Encyclopedia of American Civil Rights and Liberties.
Sam Nelson, PhD, chair of the political science department at the University of Toledo in Toledo, Ohio, and author of Beyond the First Amendment.
Barbara Trish, PhD, professor of political science at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa.
Brigid Callahan Harrison, PhD, professor of political science and law at Montclair State University in Montclair, New Jersey, and author of American Democracy Now
United States Senate: “Filibuster and Cloture”