You might know that Election Day in the U.S. is always the Tuesday after the first Monday in November (between Nov. 2 and Nov. 8). But you might not know what all the elections in U.S. politics are for — who’s running for what office, for national or state or local government, and so on.
Here’s a breakdown.
The most #basic basics:
Elections are between candidates for office. To become a candidate, you usually have to win a political party’s internal election. These internal elections are called primaries, and winning a primary means you’ve been nominated by that party.
Then, the nominated candidates run against one another in the general election. General elections are run by state leaders, not by political parties. It is possible to get on a ballot without a political party’s nomination, but you usually have to jump through all kinds of hoops (for example, get thousands and thousands of signatures, raise money to pay fees, etc.).
Elections for each level of government: National, state, and local
There are (more or less) 3 levels of government, and so we have 3 levels of elections.
First, we hold national elections for offices that make decisions about the whole U.S. (President, Senators, etc.).
We have state elections for offices that make decisions about just your state (Governor, State Senators, etc.).
Last, we have local elections for offices that make decisions about just your town, city, or county (Mayer, Police Chief, etc.). Local elections don’t make the news very often, but they probably have the biggest influence on your life, because your local officials make rules that directly affect you.
But all of this is only part of the story. When we talk about elections, we usually talk about 2 particularly high-profile Election Days: The presidential election and the midterm elections.
Presidential and midterm elections
Across the different levels of government, different offices come up for election at different times. We elect a President every 4 years, but we elect Senators every 6 years. And to make things more complicated, Senators’ terms are staggered. Every 2 years, one-third of all Senators are up for election.
These big, national-level races happen at the same time as state and local election races. But you’ll often hear people refer to the whole day by the headline race. When the president’s up for for election, we call it a Presidential election. You’ll still vote for Senators, members of the House of Representatives, Governors, state officials, and local officials, though.
In the middle of the President’s term are the midterm elections. These are just as important, but they make fewer splashy headlines. Like in presidential years, you’ll vote for for Senators, House of Representatives members, Governors, and local offices. This means you’re still voting for people who make the laws, even if you’re not voting for president.
One more thing: Special elections
As if all this wasn’t enough, there are also special elections.
Special elections happen for offices that open unexpectedly. For example, imagine you get elected President. You’re going to need a cabinet: A Secretary of State, a Secretary of Education, and so on. For your Secretary of Education, you pick a Senator who knows a lot about education policy. That’s great — but now, the Senator’s seat is open.
To fill it, the Senator’s state holds a special election. It might be months before the next Election Day, but states still need congresspeople to represent their interests. They don’t wait; they have a “special” election.
Oh, and also ballot questions
Many elections also include ballot questions. These are usually about specific state or local laws, policies, or taxes. For example, your state might add a ballot question about expanding Medicaid or legalizing marijuana. Unfortunately, these are often worded confusingly. Your best bet is to try to learn ahead of time that there are ballot questions, and then do your research before going to the polls.
Some states, like California, send out voter guides to help.