How Midterm Elections Work

By: Dave Roos

Stacey Abrams
Georgia Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams takes the stage to declare victory in the primary on May 22, 2018 in Atlanta. If elected in the November 2018 midterms, Abrams will become the first African American female governor in the nation. Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

It's autumn in America. And just as predictable as the brilliantly changing leaves is the arrival, every two years, of the political lawn signs. When there's a presidential election, lawn signs come out in full force, neighbor pitted against neighbor in yard-based partisanship. But two years after the presidential election, just as the last presidential yard signs are finally pulled, it's time for the midterms.

Midterm elections are held on even-numbered years in between presidential elections. They're called midterms because they coincide with the halfway point of a president's four-year term. For this reason, many political observers look to the midterms as a referendum on a sitting president's performance and a bellwether for which party will take control of the White House.


But midterm elections are about much more than simply testing the political winds for the next presidential election. They are a chance for Americans to go to the polls and vote for their representatives in Congress, state legislatures and local government. While the presidential election isn't decided by popular vote (remember the electoral college?), midterm elections give Americans a chance to vote directly for the politicians who will likely have the greatest impact on their daily lives.

For example, every single seat in the U.S. House of Representatives is up for grabs during midterm elections. That's 435 separate races spread across all 50 states [source:]. When you add in the 34 Senate seats at play during midterms, you begin to understand the political significance of a strong showing on election day. The party that controls Congress has as much, if not more political power than the party sitting in the White House.

Congress not only writes the laws and passes the spending bills, but it decides whether or not to approve the president's Supreme Court nominees and other major political appointees. And in the rare occasions when a president is caught committing a crime, it's Congress that votes whether to impeach. Those are even more reasons why midterm elections are a big deal.

Despite the obvious political importance of midterms, shockingly few Americans actually vote in them. The average turnout of eligible midterm voters from 1972-2016 was a miserable 39.3 percent [source: Skelley and Kondik]. That means, on average, 60 percent of American voters stay home on midterm election day.

Keep reading to learn how midterms got started, what positions are up for election and why it's the civic duty of every American to cast their ballot in these off-year elections. Heck, after reading this article, you might even put up a political lawn sign.