How Midterm Elections Work


State and Local Midterm Elections
Florida Gov. Rick Scott stops by a Republican call center to rally campaign workers Nov. 4, 2014 in Fort Myers, Florida. Scott beat former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist in the 2014 midterm election. Erik Kellar/Getty Images

If you have voted in midterm elections, there were probably many more races on the ballot than just federal representatives. That's because many state and local governments schedule their elections on the same day as the November midterms.

For example, 36 states elect their governors during midterm elections. In 34 of those states, governors serve four-year terms. Residents of New Hampshire and Vermont elect governors to two-year terms, so gubernatorial elections are held there on both presidential election years and midterms [source: USA.gov].

And then there are midterm elections for seats in state legislatures. All 50 states, except Nebraska, have bicameral legislatures, meaning there are two chambers similar to the Senate and House of Representatives (most share those names, too) [source: Nebraska.gov]. State senators serve either two- or four-year terms and most state representatives serve two-year terms (only five states have four-year terms for representatives).

With 50 states and 99 individual legislative bodies, that means thousands of state government seats are up for grabs during the midterms. In the 2018 midterm elections, there are 6,066 state legislative races in 46 states [source: NCSL]. In states with two-year terms for state representatives, all seats are up for election in both presidential and midterm elections. Elections for state senators, like their federal counterparts, are mostly staggered.

Not only are state senators divided into three classes and elected in different years, but in many states the length of the term isn't fixed. In so-called 2-4-4 states, state senators are elected for either two or four years depending on the year of the election. Confused, yet?

The idea behind the 2-4-4 system is to ensure that there is an election every 10 years, because legislative districts are "reapportioned" (aka redistricted) every decade. Because redistricting gives significant advantages to incumbents, some legislatures want to make sure voters have a say in who is in office when those changes are made. Illinois is an exampleof state with a 2-4-4 election schedule.

Statewide ballot measures are another thing that Americans vote on during midterms. In 2018, there are more than 160 proposals on state ballots either created by state legislatures or citizen petitions. Those include everything from financial proposals (taxes, bonds, state pensions) to highly politicized issues like legalization of marijuana and gender identity [source: NCSL].

Then there are myriad city, county and local elections held during midterms. For example, there are hundreds of mayoral seats up for election in the 2018 midterms, including some 70 mayorships in California alone [source: U.S. Conference of Mayors]. Same goes for city council seats, local boards of education, county comptrollers, coroners and more. That would explain all those lawn signs.

Despite the sheer number of elections decided by midterms, relatively few Americans bother to show up to the polls. And those who do tend to cluster into similar demographic groups.

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