Background The Electoral College is one of the more difficult parts of the American electoral process to understand. The Founding Fathers considered the election of the president and vice-president to be a major issue, and most were apprehensive about the two most obvious options. Election of the president by Congress would upset the balance of power between the executive and the legislative branches, while election directly by the people (who may not be informed enough to objectively vote) might not put the best person in office.
Alexander Hamilton drafted the compromise that was to be included in the Constitution. Under this system, when a citizen voted in the presidential election, he was actually casting a vote to choose a presidential elector. Though the system has been changed and adapted over the years, in theory, a citizen's vote is cast the same way today.
How it works today
Each state is allocated a number of electors equal to the number of its U.S. senators plus the number of its U.S. representatives. For example, since Missouri has two senators and nine representatives, the state has 11 electoral votes. Under this system, the states with the largest population get the most electoral votes.
In order to win an election, a candidate must have a majority of the electoral votes that is also an absolute majority (over half of the total). Today there are a total of 538 electors, which means that a candidate must get at least 270 electoral votes in order to win.
Each state’s political parties choose their own electors and submit those names to their state’s chief election official. Therefore, in Missouri, the Democrats choose 11, the Republicans choose 11, and each 3rd party or independent chooses 11.
On election night, whichever party’s candidate receives the most popular votes in the state will be the party whose electors will cast their votes in the Electoral College. Since George W. Bush won a majority of Missouri votes in the 2000 election, the Republican party’s 11 electors got to cast their votes. This is a winner take all system. For example, if three million Missourians vote, 1,500,001 of them for George W. Bush and 1,499,999 of them for Al Gore, Bush gets all 11 of the states electoral votes. Consequentially, it is possible for a candidate who did not win the nation’s popular vote, but did get the electoral vote, to win an election (as happened in 2000).
The Electoral College is a system that has been hotly debated in recent years. Critics argue that the true sentiments of votes is distorted by the winner take all system, while proponents believe that the system is a tried and true one that provides for speedy and accurate count of votes. In the wake of the 2000 election, the debate rages now more than ever.
Divide the class into two groups and have them debate whether or not the United States should continue to use the Electoral College system. Those arguing against the system should note its weak points and also propose alternative voting methods (it might be beneficial to study the election processes of other democratic nations in this case). Those arguing for the system should make a point to defend the benefits of the College while also constructively countering any attacks made by the opposing team.
A mock election is a great way to aid in the understanding of the Electoral College. Have students nominate two persons (not students) for president. Then have the class vote by secret ballot. Set those ballots aside without counting them. Next, divide the class into 5 groups, each representing 1 of 5 states. It’s a good idea to choose states that represent a range of electoral votes. For example, you might use New York (33), Illinois (22), Missouri (11), Alabama (9), and South Dakota (3). The size of the groups should match the number of electoral votes – making New York the largest group and South Dakota the smallest. Each “state” should meet and choose a spokesperson. Then, each person in each “state” should vote again (as they did on their first ballot). Once the votes for each state are counted, the spokesperson should announce the winner, along with how many electoral votes they received from that state. After the overall winner is announced the popular votes should be counted. Have students compare the results of the two elections.
Have students redraw the map of the U.S. if physical size equaled electoral votes. For example, California would be the largest state, while Alaska would be one of the smaller ones. And Rhode Island would be larger than Montana!