2020 Elections Topical Guide (updated)

A style guide for the 2020 elections, based on the AP Stylebook and common usage in AP stories:


The 2020 general election is expected to be the first general election in U.S. history in which more votes are cast before Election Day than on Election Day. Thus, do not use phrasing such as voters cast ballots in Tuesday's election ... Instead: Voting concluded Tuesday ...

advance voting, absentee voting, early voting, mail-in voting

Electoral systems that allow voters to cast ballots before the day of an election are broadly known as advance voting. Each state has its own procedures for advance voting, which may include voting by mail, voting absentee or voting in person before Election Day.

In the past, some states required absentee voters to provide proof that they are unable to cast a vote on Election Day. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, however, many states are allowing anyone to apply for an absentee ballot. Some others plan to mail a ballot, or a form to request one, to every voter. State by state details can be found at: https://interactives.ap.org/advance-voting-2020/

President Donald Trump has baselessly claimed that mail voting leads to widespread fraud. The five states that before this year mailed ballots to all voters have seen no significant fraud.

The term advance voting is preferred in states where voters have several options to vote before Election Day. In the states that conduct elections primarily by mail, mail-in voting, mail voting and mailed votes are all acceptable. Hyphenate as a compound modifier: advance-voting procedures, mail-in voting, absentee-ballot votes.

Electoral College

But electoral vote(s). The process by which the United States selects its president. The "college" consists of 538 electors from the states. Each state gets as many electoral votes as it has members of Congress, and the District of Columbia gets three. To be elected president, the winner must get at least half the total plus one – or 270 electoral votes. Most states give all their electoral votes to whichever candidate wins that state's popular vote. The electoral system has delivered a split verdict five times, most recently in 2016, with one candidate winning the popular vote and another the presidency.

AP VoteCast

A survey of the American electorate conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago for The Associated Press. VoteCast, the poll and the survey are acceptable on second reference. Do not refer to VoteCast as an exit poll.

exit poll

In the U.S., a survey of voters conducted by the National Election Pool (CNN, ABC, CBS and NBC) using a methodology based on in-person interviews at polling places. AP staff must not refer to or cite exit poll results without clearance from Emily Swanson, AP's director of public opinion research.

election returns

Election returns are usually outdated as soon as they are published and should therefore be used sparingly in stories/scripts — especially shortly after polls close and the vote count is beginning. Early returns often do not provide an accurate reflection of the ultimate outcome, especially in states that take days or weeks to count votes cast in advance and provisional ballots.

It is often better to characterize the state of the vote count, rather than report it directly:

Cruz took an early lead shortly after polls closed in Texas. As midnight approached on the East Coast, Clinton led Trump by roughly 2 percentage points in Nevada. As of Wednesday morning, Trump was ahead of Clinton by fewer than 20,000 votes in Michigan out of 4.7 million votes counted.

Do not use an "exact" vote count, such as 134,654 to 122,991, because those numbers are often outdated seconds later and can continue being updated for weeks to come.

Once a race is called, it is best to use percentage points to describe the scale of a candidate's victory. Trump beat Clinton by roughly 1 percentage point in Wisconsin.

votes counted, votes cast

When describing election returns, is it often most accurate to describe totals as a subset of votes counted, and not votes cast. The total and final number of votes cast is usually not available until several days or weeks after an election. Example: Hernandez had a lead of about 500 votes of more than 1.1 million votes counted.

poll monitors, poll watchers, poll monitoring, poll watching

The terms poll watchers, poll monitors and citizen observers are interchangeable, and they can be partisan or nonpartisan. Nonpartisan poll watchers are trained to monitor polling places and local elections offices that tally the votes, looking for irregularities or ways to improve the system. Partisan poll watchers are those who favor particular parties, candidates or ballot propositions and monitor voting places and local election offices to ensure fairness to their candidates or causes. They can make note of potential problems as a way to challenge the voting or tabulating process. In all cases, poll watchers are not allowed to interfere with the conduct of the election. In some states, they are allowed to challenge individuals' eligibility to vote; in those cases, a voter may need to file a provisional ballot. In 2020, when as many as half of ballots may be cast before Election Day, poll watching may extend to advance voting, where boards that include observers from both parties often review individual ballots to determine whether they should be counted. Hyphenate as an adjective: poll-monitoring procedures. No hyphen as a noun: They are expanding poll monitoring. Do not use voter protection workers.

disputed election

Use care and caution with terms such as disputed election and disputed victory. They require assessing whether the outcome is truly in doubt or unknown, based on reputable sources of information about accuracy and completeness of the vote count. Jones disputed the outcome, pointing to evidence from election officials that ballots in three counties were not included in the tally.

Do not automatically use disputed when reporting on recounts, which are required by many states (or may be requested by candidates at no cost) in closely contested elections.

Do not describe an election as disputed based on the claims of a candidate who disagrees with the outcome but is unable or unwilling to provide evidence of fraud or malfeasance.


A fixed area into which a municipality is divided for voting purposes.

precincts reporting

Avoid the term in stories/scripts. In states with large numbers of advance votes, the number of "precincts reporting" may just be one, but account for a large percentage of the total vote. Even with 100% of precincts reporting, there may be a substantial number of ballots left to be counted. If it is necessary to refer to precincts reporting, for instance in graphics, interactives and other storytelling formats, also include an estimate of the outstanding vote.

race call

AP calls winners of elections in the United States based on an analysis of the vote count, polling research and other data. An AP race call is not a projection. Once AP has called a race, our stories say candidate X has won, without attribution to the race call.

ranked choice voting

An electoral system in which voters rank their choice of candidate by ordered preference, with those rankings used to determine a winner in the event no candidate wins a majority of ballots on which they appear as voters' first preference. No hyphen in the compound modifier. Ranked voting is acceptable on subsequent references and in headlines. Avoid the abbreviation RCV unless in quotations.

majority, plurality

A majority is more than half the votes cast; a plurality is the largest number of votes, but less than a majority.


A requirement that a proposal or candidate gain a level of support that exceeds the threshold of a standard 50% plus 1 majority.


Occurs when a voter votes for too many candidates in a given race.


Occurs when a voter doesn't vote for every office on the ballot.

U.S. Postal Service

Use U.S. Postal Service or the Postal Service on first reference. Retain capitalization of Postal Service in subsequent references to the agency.

Lowercase the service when it stands alone. Lowercase post office in generic references to the agency and to an individual office: I went to the post office. Do not use USPS.


Congress, congressional

Capitalize when referring to the U.S. Senate and House together. The adjective is lowercase unless part of a formal name.


Lowercase in referring to a political philosophy.

democrat, Democrat, democratic, Democratic, Democratic Party

For the U.S. political party, capitalize Democrat and Democratic in references to the Democratic Party or its members. Lowercase in generic uses: He champions the values of a democratic society. Use Democratic, not Democrat, in usages such as the Democratic-controlled Legislature and the Democratic senator (except in direct quotations that use Democrat).

democratic socialism

A political ideology embraced by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others. Do not capitalize unless a candidate stands for office as a member of the Democratic Socialists of America.


Spell it out, use an ordinal number and capitalize district in a proper name: the 2nd District.

Election Day, election night

The first term is capitalized, the second is lowercase for the November national elections in the United States.

EMILY’s List

A political fundraising organization that focuses on electing women who support abortion rights.

first lady, first gentleman (for the spouse of the president); second lady, second gentleman (for the spouse of the vice president)

Not an official title, always lowercase. Should the individual hold or have held an official title of high office, that title takes precedence: former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, not former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

fundraiser, fundraising

leftist, ultra-leftist, left-wing

Avoid these terms in favor of more precise descriptions of political leanings and goals.

liberal, liberalism

Lowercase in reference to a political philosophy.

majority leader, minority leader

Capitalize as formal legislative title before a name, otherwise lowercase.

misinformation, fact checks, fake news

The term misinformation refers to false information shared about a particular topic that could be mistaken as truth. It can include honest mistakes, exaggerations, and misunderstandings of facts, as well as disinformation, which refers to misinformation created and spread intentionally as a way to mislead or confuse.

Misinformation can be transmitted in any medium, including social media, websites, printed materials and broadcast. It includes photography or video and audio recordings that have been created, manipulated or selectively edited.

The term typically excludes opinions, as well as satire and parody. It does include hoaxes, propaganda and fabricated news stories.

When used broadly, the term misinformation is preferable to the term fake news. The term fake news may be used in quotes or as shorthand for deliberate falsehoods or fiction masked as news.

When using either term, be specific in describing what is false and back up that description with facts. Avoid amplifying the false claim.

Do not label as fake news specific or individual news items that are disputed. If fake news is used in a quote, push for specifics about what is meant. Alternative wording includes false reports, erroneous reports, unverified reports, questionable reports, disputed reports or false reporting, depending on the context.

Fact-checking is essential in debunking fabricated stories or parts of stories, or other misinformation. This requires reporting or research to verify facts that affirm or disprove a statement, or that show a gray area.

The goal of fact-checking is to push back on falsehoods, exaggeration and political spin, and to hold politicians and public figures accountable for their words.

Basic fact-checking should always be part of the main story, including wording noting when an assertion differs with known facts. Often, however, additional reporting is required to explore disputed points or questions more fully. In those cases, a separate fact check piece should be done. Some points:

Present the assertion that’s being checked, and quickly state what’s wrong with it or what is correct. Use the exact quote or quotes that are being examined. Follow with the facts, backed by appropriate citations and attribution.

Stick to checking facts, rather than opinion. A person’s personal tastes and preferences might lie outside the mainstream, but as opinions they are not a topic for a fact check.

Fact checks need not show statements to be clearly correct or clearly incorrect. Words can be true, false, exaggerated, a stretch, a selective use of data, partly or mostly true, etc. Use the most apt description that’s supported by what the facts show.

If a statement can’t be confirmed, or can’t be immediately confirmed, say so. But describe the efforts made to confirm it.

Usage notes: fact check and fact-checking (n.), to fact-check (v.)


Acronym for political action committee. Raises money and makes contributions to campaigns of political candidates or parties. At the federal level in the U.S., contribution amounts are limited by law and may not come from corporations or labor unions. Enforcement overseen by the Federal Election Commission. PAC is acceptable on first reference; spell out in body of story. A super PAC is a political action committee that may raise and spend unlimited amounts of money, including from corporations and unions, to campaign independently for candidates for U.S. federal office. Its activities must be reported to the FEC, but they are not otherwise regulated if not coordinated with the candidate or campaign.

party affiliation

A candidate's political party is essential information in any election, campaign or issue story. See full party affiliation entry.

political parties and philosophies

Capitalize both the name of the party and the word party if it is customarily used as part of the organization's proper name: the Democratic Party, the Republican Party.

Include the political affiliation of any elected officeholder.

Capitalize Communist, Conservative, Democratic, Liberal, Republican, Socialist, etc., when they refer to a specific party or its members. Lowercase these words when they refer to political philosophy (see examples below).

Lowercase the name of a philosophy in noun and adjective forms unless it is the derivative of a proper name: communism, communist; fascism, fascist. But: Marxism, Marxist; Nazism, Nazi.

EXAMPLES: John Adams was a Federalist, but a man who subscribed to his philosophy today would be described as a federalist. The liberal Republican senator and his Conservative Party colleague said they believe that democracy and communism are incompatible. The Communist Party member said he is basically a socialist who has reservations about Marxism.

Generally, a description of specific political views is more informative than a generic label like liberal or conservative.

policymaker, policymaking

One word for each.

polls and surveys

Consult the detailed chapter in the AP Stylebook on how to use results of public opinion surveys and avoid exaggerating the meaning.

possessive form

SINGULAR PROPER NAMES ENDING IN S: Use only an apostrophe: Harris’ selection, Descartes' theories, Dickens' novels, Hercules' labors, Kansas' schools.

president, vice president

Capitalize these titles before names; lowercase in other uses. No hyphen in vice presidential as adjective: the vice presidential candidate.

presidential, presidency

The first term is lowercase except as part of a formal name; presidency is always lowercase.

presidential election

press secretary

Lowercase unless part of a formal title.


QAnon is an apocalyptic and convoluted conspiracy theory spread largely through the internet and promoted by some right-wing extremists.

It is centered on the baseless belief that President Donald Trump is waging a secret campaign against enemies in the “deep state” and a child sex trafficking ring run by satanic pedophiles and cannibals. It is based on cryptic postings by the anonymous “Q,” purportedly a government insider. The story has grown to include other long-standing conspiracy theories, gaining traction among some strident Trump supporters.

Many QAnon followers believe thousands of deep state operatives and top Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, will be rounded up and sent to Guantanamo Bay during an event called “The Storm.”

QAnon emerged in 2017 through anonymous message boards on the fringes of the internet. In May 2019, an FBI bulletin mentioning QAnon warned that conspiracy theory-driven extremists have become a domestic terrorism threat and were “very likely” to commit violent crimes inspired by their fringe beliefs.

The movement is often likened to a cult. Some followers have run for office, primarily in the Republican Party, though some have been independent or third parties. Trump has not disavowed QAnon.

Republican, Republican Party

Both terms are capitalized. GOP, standing for Grand Old Party, may be used on second reference.

rightist, ultra-rightist, right-wing

Avoid these terms in favor of more precise descriptions of political leanings.

representative, Rep.

Use Rep., Reps. as formal titles of House members before one or more names. Spell out and lowercase representative in other uses.

tea party

Lowercase the populist movement that opposes the Washington political establishment. Adherents are tea partyers. Formally named groups in the movement are capitalized: Tea Party Express.



A political grouping or tendency mixing racism, white nationalism, anti-Semitism and populism. Avoid using the term generically and without definition. When discussing what the movement says about itself, the term "alt-right" (quotation marks, hyphen and lowercase) may be used in quotes or modified as in the self-described "alt-right" or so-called alt-right. See the full entry in the Stylebook for more detail and related definitions.

battleground states

States where candidates from both major political parties have a reasonable chance for victory in a statewide race or presidential vote.

close race

Avoid the term to describe a political contest unless backed up by election results or recent polls of voters.

dark horse

Someone who emerges from the political shadows to seek a nomination.


Candidate who leads a political race; the term is hyphenated. Use with caution, as today’s front-runner can become tomorrow’s also-ran.

head to the polls

Avoid. Such a phrase does not account for the large number of voters who will cast a ballot before Election Day.


Politically powerful person who boosts candidates into office.


Political philosophy or ideas that promote the rights and power of ordinary people as opposed to political and intellectual elites. Avoid labeling politicians or political parties as populist, other than in a quote or paraphrase: He calls himself a populist. Using the term in a general context is acceptable: The panelists discussed the rise of populism in Europe. She appealed to populist fervor.

rank and file (n.), rank-and-file (adj.)

Ordinary members of a political party.

stalking horse

Someone who enters a political race to lure voters away from rivals, then drops out and endorses another candidate.


Avoid. A prominent person who campaigns on behalf of a candidate.

swing states

States where voters have vacillated between Republican and Democratic candidates in the last three or four presidential elections.

Notes on the timeline

With both Democrats and Republicans preparing for possible legal fights over the vote count, the post-election process for seating the winner is getting a closer look. The two-plus months of procedural steps are laid out by the U.S. Constitution and federal law. Key dates and details:

Nov. 3: The first step is Election Day. Voters in all 50 states technically are not voting for a president, but for a slate of electors who are pledged to support one of the presidential candidates in a later vote. Voters can cast their ballots on or before Nov. 3, but voting stops when polls close. States then can count the votes.

Late November/early December: Each state has its own deadline to certify the election. However, if ballot disputes, litigation or other factors delay the count, blowing this deadline doesn't invoke a penalty in the presidential race. The big deadlines are still to come.

Dec. 8: This is known as the safe harbor deadline. That means that Congress cannot challenge any electors named by this date in accordance with state law. Most states want their electors named by this deadline, to ensure Congress cannot disregard them.

Dec. 14: This is the date when electors are required to meet in their states and cast their ballots for president. Missing this deadline could mean a state's electors don't count in the presidential tally. Any electors seated between Dec. 8 and this date can still vote, but they theoretically could be challenged by Congress. Also, by this date the governor of each state must certify the state's presidential election and slate of electors.

Dec. 23: The states are supposed to transmit their votes to Congress by this date.

Jan. 3: The new Congress is sworn in.

Jan. 6: Congress counts the electoral votes. Typically, this process formally certifies a winner.

But if no candidate wins a majority of electors, the House votes to determine who becomes president. This procedure is laid out in the 12th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Each state's delegation gets one vote, and the winner of 26 state delegations becomes president. The Senate votes for the vice president.

Other disputes could also break out. Congress can reject electors not correctly seated by the Dec. 8 deadline. If states submit competing slates of electors — as happened in the 1876 presidential election — Congress will have to determine which one to count. An 1887 law passed after that episode gives broad guidance on how to do that, but it's never come up again, so no one knows exactly what the procedure might be.

Jan. 20: By noon on this day, the Constitution says a new presidential term begins. If Congress has not yet certified a winner of the presidential election, federal law designates an acting president based on which elected officials are in office. If there is no president or vice president whose election has been certified by Congress, for example, the Speaker of the House becomes president. If there isn't a speaker in office, the president pro tempore of the Senate becomes president.

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