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The Electoral College vs The Popular Vote: Who Should Choose OUR President?

December 14, 2016

Jocelyn Thomas




Intended Audience: High School Students

Objectives: Students will be able to define the electoral college; describe how the Electoral College works; explain the impact that the Electoral College has had on major political issues (i.e., slavery); discuss the current concerns about the Electoral College system in regards to Election 2016; and, argue whether the Electoral College is an effective and/or necessary part of electing a president.

Overview: “The founding fathers established The Electoral College in the Constitution as a compromise between election of the President by a vote in Congress and election of the President by a popular vote of qualified citizens.” [i] “While the election of the president and vice-president was provided for in Article II, Section 1, Clauses 2, 3, and 4 of the U.S. Constitution, the process today has moved substantially away from the framers’ original intent. Over the years, a combination of several factors has influenced the Electoral College and the electoral process.”[ii] Nevertheless, even after all of these years, as subsequent tweaks to the process, the process has been determined to be confusing, with many intricacies that make it difficult for most Americans to understand. This lesson will give students the opportunity to understand these intricacies while thinking critically about the merit, or lack thereof, of this historically, and sometimes, indecisive[iii] process.

Scope and Sequence: This lesson asks students to explore what the framers of the United States Constitution considered to be the best way to elect the president and vice-president of the United States – the Electoral College. As well, the lesson provides opportunities for students to analyze, synthesize, evaluate, and discuss the election of the president through the electoral college versus the popular vote and assess the impact of the Electoral College process.

Lesson Plan

Part 1: Who determines who becomes the President of the United States?

Hook: The electoral college is something that we hear a lot about these days. Some people believe that the electoral college is a broken system.

Key Vocabulary

  • Popular Vote—results of a presidential election based on how individual citizens vote.
  • Electoral College Vote—results of presidential election based on how representative electors vote.
  • Popular Sovereignty—the idea that the government (at all levels) is controlled, ultimately, by the will of the people

[i] What is the Electoral College?

[ii] National Archives: Tally of the 1824 Electoral College Vote.

[iii] Electoral College & Indecisive Elections.

Analysis Questions: 1960 Presidential Election Interactive Map

  1. What are your first impressions of this map?
  2. How many electors voted in the election of 1960?
  3. How many were needed to win?
  4. How did your home state vote?
  5. What does it tell you about the election of 1960?

The Constitution: Article II

Section 1. The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years, and, together with the Vice President, chosen for the same Term, be elected, as follows:

  • Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.
  • The Congress may determine the Time of choosing the Electors, and the Day on which they shall give their Votes; which Day shall be the same throughout the United States.

Analysis Questions: The Constitution: Article II

  1. How long is the presidential term?
  2. How do we determine the number of electors each state has?
  3. What is the job of the electors?
  4. How do electors vote?

Stop and Talk

  1. According to this system, who determines who is President of the United States?
  2. Do you think that system is fair? Why or why not?
  3. Can you think of any problems that might come up because of this system?

Part 2: The Impact of the Electoral College

Analysis Question: Determination of the Number of Electors

How do you determine the number of electors for an individual state? Study the Electoral College chart and add the number of electors per state.

State                   #of Electors






New Hampshire

New York

North Carolina


Rhode Island

South Carolina

New Jersey






The first major election that the United States experienced under the Electoral College system was the Election of 1800.

Background Information on Election of 1800

Helpful Vocabulary and Key Figures

  • Democratic-Republican Party— supported strong state governments, often pro-slavery, considered the farmer/plantation class, did not like the electoral college.
  • Federalist Party—supported a strong national government, often anti-slavery, considered elitists, wanted the electoral college.
  • Alexander Hamilton—federalist, helped promote signing the Constitution, supported the electoral college.
  • Thomas Jefferson—anti-federalist, slave owner, critic of the electoral college, created the Declaration of Independence
  • States’ rights—the idea that state governments should have more control over deciding debated policy issues, like slavery.

Most observers agree that the electoral college did not work as planned in 1800, largely because of the development of the Democratic-Republican Party and the Federalist Party. With the development of such parties, which caucused in Congress to select party nominees, electors generally understood that they should vote for two individuals from the same party rather than, as was originally planned, for the two individuals considered most capable of assuming the presidency.

Indeed, Alexander Hamilton plotted behind the scenes to use the electoral college to elect Federalist, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, of South Carolina, over Federalist John Adams. As a consequence, all 73 electors who cast votes for Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson over Adams also voted for Aaron Burr, whom they expected to serve as vice president. When Jefferson and Burr tied, the election went to the House of Representatives, where it took 36 ballots and Hamilton’s eventual support of Jefferson to break the tie. Consequently, the Twelfth Amendment was adopted in 1804 specifying that electors would cast separate votes for presidential and vice presidential nominees rather than a single, nondistinguishing vote for each of two candidates.

Jefferson believed that his election had brought about a “revolution” in law and politics. He would put greater emphasis on states’ rights than had the two Federalist presidents; he repudiated the Alien and Sedition Acts; and he attempted to bring the chief executive into greater touch with the people.

NOTE: In the next section you are going to analyze some data about the election of 1800 so that you can see the impact that the electoral college system has had on not only the presidential elections but one of the most important questions of the time: slavery.



Analysis Questions: The Impact of the Electoral College

  1. Which states did Jefferson win?
  2. Which states did Adams win?
  3. Why does NY have 12 electoral votes and Virginia have 21?



Discussion Questions

  • What connection do you see between the number of electors and the map above?
  • What can you likely infer (make an educated guess) about the political issues that the candidates of the election of 1800 will likely support?
  • How does population size impact the presidential election?

Stop and Talk

According to what we have seen thus far, a candidate does not necessarily have to be the most popular person in the country to win the presidency. They only have to be the most popular in the states with larger numbers of electors OR in enough smaller states to make up the difference between loosing bigger states.

  • What do you think of this as a system to choose the president?
  • Is it effective, fair, and/or necessary?

Part 3: The Legitimacy of the Electoral College

Discussion: “For” or “Against” the Electoral College?

Argument FOR the Electoral College

Federalist 10

This essay, the first of Madison’s contributions to the series, was a rather long development of the theme that a well-constructed union would break and control the violence of faction, a “dangerous vice” in popular governments.

As defined by Madison, a faction was a number of citizens, whether a majority or minority, who were united and activated “by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

Federalist 68

The way of electing a president, Hamilton noted with relief, was almost the only part of the system, of any consequence, which has escaped without severe censure.”

Rightly, the “sense of the people should operate in the choice” of the chief executive. But this was to be accomplished in a special way. Instead of committing the election of the president to any established body, the choice should be made by men chosen for the special purpose, and meeting at particular times. Such men of distinction would be the most capable of deciding which presidential candidate had the best qualifications for office.

Argument AGAINST the Electoral College

First, the result of this year’s presidential race will likely have been decided by fewer than a million voters. Those are the undecided voters in a handful of large swing states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Florida, which have lots of votes in the Electoral College.

Second, while Gov. George W. Bush has pulled slightly ahead of Vice President Al Gore in the presidential popularity contest, some oddsmakers still give Mr. Gore the lead in the projected Electoral College vote. Voters may wake up to find that Gore has won the election with fewer popular votes than Mr. Bush.

Since the Civil War, this calamity has only occurred twice, in 1876 and 1888. But the specter hangs over every presidential election that is remotely close. That’s because with the 18th-century Electoral College, each presidential race is conducted as individual contests in the 50 states.

What’s more, since the rules are “winner take all” and heavily tilted toward the largest states, it means that a presidential candidate need only win a plurality of votes in each of the 11 largest states to win enough Electoral College votes to capture the prize.

Place yourself somewhere on the spectrum:

The Electoral College ensures that popular but immoral political ideas/parties do not become to powerful by getting into the office of the Presidency?

Agree <————-I———————->Disagree

The Electoral College should not be in charge of determining which ideas/parties are in charge of the country: a popular vote should determine that.

Agree <————-I———————->Disagree

The Electoral College as it exists today is able to effectively uphold it’s original purpose.

Agree <————-I———————->Disagree

It is logistically more useful to use the Electoral College system than to attempt to accurately count all ballots in an election.

Agree <————-I———————->Disagree

Stop and TALK

  • What have you heard about the Electoral College in the news recently?
  • How does what you learned today help you interpret the election results for 2016?
  • What does what you learned today make you think about the efforts to recount votes in “swing” states?
  • Do you think the Electoral College System will need to change at all? If so, how should it change? If not, why shouldn’t it change?


Have students read the following Opinion Editorial and respond to the following: what are the author’s key points? Do you agree with the author? Do you think that the Electoral College is flawed? And if so, why? If not, why?


Why I Will Not Cast My Electoral Vote for Donald Trump*
By Christopher Suprun, December 5, 2016

DALLAS — I am a Republican presidential elector, one of the 538 people asked to choose officially the president of the United States. Since the election, people have asked me to change my vote based on policy disagreements with Donald J. Trump. In some cases, they cite the popular vote difference. I do not think presidents-elect should be disqualified for policy disagreements. I do not think they should be disqualified because they won the Electoral College instead of the popular vote. However, now I am asked to cast a vote on Dec. 19 for someone who shows daily he is not qualified for the office.

Fifteen years ago, as a firefighter, I was part of the response to the Sept. 11 attacks against our nation. That attack and this year’s election may seem unrelated, but for me the relationship becomes clearer every day.

George W. Bush is an imperfect man, but he led us through the tragic days following the attacks. His leadership showed that America was a great nation. That was also the last time I remember the nation united. I watch Mr. Trump fail to unite America and drive a wedge between us.

Mr. Trump goes out of his way to attack the cast of “Saturday Night Live” for bias. He tweets day and night, but waited two days to offer sympathy to the Ohio State community after an attack there. He does not encourage civil discourse, but chooses to stoke fear and create outrage.

This is unacceptable. For me, America is that shining city on a hill that Ronald Reagan envisioned. It has problems. It has challenges. These can be met and overcome just as our nation overcame Sept. 11.

The United States was set up as a republic. Alexander Hamilton provided a blueprint for states’ votes. Federalist 68 argued that an Electoral College should determine if candidates are qualified, not engaged in demagogy, and independent from foreign influence. Mr. Trump shows us again and again that he does not meet these standards. Given his own public statements, it isn’t clear how the Electoral College can ignore these issues, and so it should reject him.

I have poured countless hours into serving the party of Lincoln and electing its candidates. I will pour many more into being more faithful to my party than some in its leadership. But I owe no debt to a party. I owe a debt to my children to leave them a nation they can trust.

Mr. Trump lacks the foreign policy experience and demeanor needed to be commander in chief. During the campaign more than 50 Republican former national security officials and foreign policy experts co-signed a letter opposing him. In their words, “he would be a dangerous president.” During the campaign Mr. Trump even said Russia should hack Hillary Clinton’s emails. This encouragement of an illegal act has troubled many members of Congress and troubles me.

Hamilton also reminded us that a president cannot be a demagogue. Mr. Trump urged violence against protesters at his rallies during the campaign. He speaks of retribution against his critics. He has surrounded himself with advisers such as Stephen K. Bannon, who claims to be a Leninist and lauds villains and their thirst for power, including Darth Vader. “Rogue One,” the latest “Star Wars” installment, arrives later this month. I am not taking my children to see it to celebrate evil, but to show them that light can overcome it.

Gen. Michael T. Flynn, Mr. Trump’s pick for national security adviser, has his own checkered past about rules. He installed a secret internet connection in his Pentagon office despite rules to the contrary. Sound familiar?

Finally, Mr. Trump does not understand that the Constitution expressly forbids a president to receive payments or gifts from foreign governments. We have reports that Mr. Trump’s organization has business dealings in Argentina, Bahrain, Taiwan and elsewhere. Mr. Trump could be impeached in his first year given his dismissive responses to financial conflicts of interest. He has played fast and loose with the law for years. He may have violated the Cuban embargo, and there are reports of improprieties involving his foundation and actions he took against minority tenants in New York. Mr. Trump still seems to think that pattern of behavior can continue.

The election of the next president is not yet a done deal. Electors of conscience can still do the right thing for the good of the country. Presidential electors have the legal right and a constitutional duty to vote their conscience. I believe electors should unify behind a Republican alternative, an honorable and qualified man or woman such as Gov. John Kasich of Ohio. I pray my fellow electors will do their job and join with me in discovering who that person should be.

Fifteen years ago, I swore an oath to defend my country and Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. On Dec. 19, I will do it again.

Christopher Suprun lives in Texas and works as a paramedic.

*A version of this op-ed appears in print on December 6, 2016, on page A27 of the New York edition with the headline: Why Electors Should Reject Trump.



Presidential Election video

National Archives and Records Administration: U.S. Electoral College

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