lesson: what is the electoral college?


Students may have participated in student council elections in the past. These are examples of a popular-vote election: The person with the majority of votes wins the seat. That’s the method we use for electing Mayors, Governors, and members of Congress too. But the method we use in the United States to elect a President has an additional step: Representing voters in each state, the Electoral College votes for President using a process outlined in our Constitution.


Students will understand the Electoral College process. They will learn how many electoral votes their own state has and consider what effect their state’s votes may have on the 2012 presidential election.

background information

Review the content in the ”Electoral College” entry from Grolier’s The New Book of Knowledge before the lesson.


Load the interactive "Electoral College Map" on your projector or interactive whiteboard.

Print the “Electoral Map Math” skills sheet for students to use as a take-home activity.


  • Ask students: Who elects the President of the United States? Gauge their knowledge of the Electoral College system. Many will say that voters elect the President. Explain these points:
    • Our country uses a system outlined in the U.S. Constitution called the Electoral College. It includes 538 people called electors. Those people pledge to vote for the presidential candidate that the majority of voters in their states have chosen.
    • Each state has a certain number of electors—two electors representing that state’s two Senators, plus the number of Representatives the state has in Congress, which is based on the state’s population. So, for example, Alabama has two senators and seven Representatives, totaling nine electors.
    • A candidate needs at least 270 electoral votes to be elected President of the United States.
    • Students may wonder why the U.S. has an Electoral College. Explain that some framers of the U.S. Constitution worried that large states could unfairly influence the popular vote. They also worried that citizens would not know enough about the presidential candidates to knowledgeably vote for one over another. Others believed that Congress should select the President. The Electoral College was established as a way to address these concerns.
    • Clarify that we use the Electoral College only to pick a president. Members of Congress, Governors, and Mayors win with a popular vote.
  • Show students the "Electoral College Map."
    • Ask students: Which state has the highest population? How do you know? Reinforce that the state’s population determines its number of Representatives in Congress.
    • Ask students: How do you think the number of electoral votes affects presidential campaigns? Explain that states have come to be known as red states, blue states, or swing states.
    • “Red states” are states that have reliably voted for a Republican candidate over the past several elections. Red refers to the fact that on election night, the maps showing the election returns on television use the color red to indicate that the Republican candidate has gotten the highest number of votes in that state.
    • “Blue states” are states that have reliably voted for a Democratic candidate over the past several elections. Blue refers to the fact that on election night, the maps showing the election returns on television use the color blue to indicate that the Democratic candidate has gotten the highest number of votes in that state.
    • “Swing states,” as their name implies, swing back and forth between voting for Democratic and Republican candidates. Some of these swing states, such as New Hampshire and Nevada, have few electoral votes. Others have a high number of electoral votes, such as Ohio and Florida. But all the swing states are considered “battleground states” for a candidate, regardless of the number of electoral votes. Presidential candidates tend to campaign the hardest in these states.
  • Focus on your own state.
    • Ask students to look at the map and determine how many electoral votes your state has.
    • On the "Electoral College Map," click on “2008 Electoral Results by State.” This shows the results of the 2008 contest between Barack Obama and John McCain. Ask: How did our state vote in 2008?
    • Ask students if they know whether your state is considered a red, blue, or swing state; clarify the choices by clicking on “How Will States Vote in 2012?” and explain that the states highlighted in green are considered battleground, or swing, states.
  • Play the "Electoral Challenge" game as a class.
    • Load "Electoral Challenge" on your projector or interactive whiteboard.
    • Divide the class into two teams. Let each team pick a name and a color.
    • In each turn, the students’ challenge is to work together to select a state to add to their electoral vote tally. (Watch out: A wild-card third party might appear and win a state at any time!) Students will need to think about which states have greater numbers of electoral votes. The first team to reach 270 wins the election!

critical-thinking questions

For class discussion or writing prompts:

  1. Do you think the Electoral College system is a good one? Why or why not?
  2. What do you think about states being classified as red states, blue states, or swing states?

take-home activity: electoral map math

This activity will reinforce students’ knowledge of

  • how numbers of electoral votes are determined
  • their own state’s role in the presidential election process
  • how many electoral votes are needed to win the presidency
  • U.S. geography

Print and distribute copies of “Electoral Map Math” for students to complete at home.


  1. Answers will vary.
  2. Electoral votes are determined by the number of U.S. Senators from a state (2) plus the number of members in the U.S. House of Representatives (numbers will vary).
  3. Yes. 538 ÷ 2 = 269. Each candidate could receive 269 electoral votes.

    One possible scenario is Romney winning New Hampshire, Iowa, Ohio, Florida, Nevada, and North Carolina in addition to the states that voted for John McCain in 2008, while Barack Obama wins the rest. Then each candidate would have 269 electoral votes. If neither candidate wins enough electoral votes to become President, then the U.S. House of Representatives determines the outcome, a process described in the 12th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This has happened only once in U.S. history: In 1824, the House of Representatives declared John Quincy Adams the winner of the presidential election.
  4. Candidate A. Candidate A has the majority of electoral votes, even though Candidate B has won more popular votes. This was the actual scenario in the 2000 election between George W. Bush (Candidate A) and Al Gore (Candidate B), although Al Gore received only 266 electoral votes (the delegate from Washington, D.C., abstained from casting an electoral vote that year). And in 1888, Benjamin Harrison lost the popular vote to Grover Cleveland but won the electoral count and, therefore, the presidency.
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