Is the Electoral College the BEST way to choose a president? A Current and Controversial Issue Discussion
The Electoral College has been a consistent current and societal issue for discussion in civics classrooms. Great discussions, much like great lesson plans, rarely just happen. They take intention, structure, and planning. Keth Magnuson, a civics, AP Government, World History, and Holocaust Studies educator in Falmouth, Maine is one of the thirty-three participants in the Fall 2021 Guardians of Democracy Microcredential Program facilitated by the Illinois Civics Hub. This community of practice allows educators from around the country to collaborate as they hone their skills in the proven practices of civic education.
Keith recently earned his Silver Badge in Using Current and Controversial Issue Discussions in the Classroom where he developed, implemented, and reflected on a lesson in which students explored and deliberated essential and supporting questions related to the Electoral College. We asked Keith to share his experience in facilitating this classroom discussion. Here are his responses.
Briefly describe your topic for your current and controversial issue discussion. What prompt did you use? Why is this an open and relevant issue for students?
We used this lesson on the Electoral College in an AP Government and Politics and a heterogeneous Civics class this past October at Falmouth High School in Maine. The overall prompt was: “To what extent is the Electoral College effective?” This is an open and highly relevant question in the world of government and politics today, as it has been a topic of much public debate for at least two decades and will continue to be widely debated for the foreseeable future. There are varying points of view on this topic across society and both sides have valid arguments that can be drawn from a variety of sources. Because of the high profile of the 2016 and 2020 elections, it is a topic that students are aware of and interested in. They are eager to learn more about it in an in-depth and balanced manner.
What strategy did you use for this discussion? Why did you choose this strategy?
My strategy for this was actually two-fold. We first used the Structured Academic Controversy (SAC). This strategy was perfect for the issue because the first prompt allowed us to break the controversy down into a binary choice: “Is the Electoral College the best way to choose a President? “. The SAC had students engaged in a close reading of sources, evaluating which arguments/evidence best support their assigned perspective, and gave every student a detailed look at the pros and cons of the Electoral College in an evidence-based manner. After we completed the SAC (we stopped short of the debriefing portion of the typical SAC procedure), the class transitioned into a Socratic Seminar.
In the Seminar, students were given a slightly different prompt: “By what process should we choose a President?”. The Socratic Seminar provided a good forum for more nuanced discussion of the evidence, the various details of all of the options in this situation, and an opportunity to participate in a wider discussion of how our democracy might reach a productive conclusion. The combination of these two strategies worked perfectly in this situation as we moved from a small group, binary choice SAC into a large group, more open discussion of the various options in the seminar. Each student evaluated/used sources, presented the evidence for one of two perspectives in the SAC, actively listened to the opposing perspective in the SAC, and then participated in a large group discussion that included the pros and cons of other possible methods of choosing a President- mainly the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact and the Congressional District Method. In totality, this entire academic exercise provided students with a really in-depth understanding of the various options and perspectives within the national debate over the Electoral College.
How did students gain the necessary background knowledge for this discussion?
For AP Government, the students did the first round of research at home, on their own. In Civics, we did the whole thing in class. This worked out well for both classes as students were well prepared in both instances. In the case of AP Gov, doing some of it for homework saved us one class period and since they had about a week to complete the research, every student was ready to go on the day of the SAC. In Civics, they worked in groups during a class period. This also worked well as students were able to help each other out, divide up the work, and see me immediately with any questions or confusion. The actual assignment both groups were doing was working through a series of research questions about elections and the Electoral College using the website 270towin.com. On the site, they accessed several different historical elections to gain an understanding of how the Electoral College has worked historically and also were able to manipulate the 2024 map (or any other) to explore different scenarios. Leading up to this we read relevant excerpts from the U.S. Constitution in class and clarified the dynamics of the Electoral College so each student would have a basic grasp of the system ahead of looking at these election results.
How did this activity deepen students’ disciplinary content knowledge and/or meet learning targets?
Students learned about the Electoral College, elections in general, and the other viable options for choosing a President at a very high level in both classes. In addition to straight content (how the Electoral College works for instance), we were able to really focus on the political theory underpinning representative government, understanding multiple perspectives, and working on building consensus. As a teacher of civics/government, amongst my primary objectives, are always to facilitate a greater understanding and appreciation of representative democracy and the ability to be productive democratic citizens in our society. I believe that this lesson accomplished both of those objectives.
How did this project deepen students’ knowledge of themselves and their community?
Students were directly asked to think about their feelings towards the Electoral College and ascertain whether those feelings were more political (their preferred candidates are perceived to either benefit or be at a disadvantage because of the EC- and that’s how they form their opinion on it) or if their feelings about it are more based on what they value/prioritize in a representative democracy. Students are continuously asked this same basic question throughout the year and it, eventually, leads to greater self-awareness and some critical thinking about what they value within our representative democracy.
Students were definitely challenged to think about the Electoral College in this unit in a non-partisan, evidence-based manner and ask tough questions as to what their own feelings towards it are and why they feel that way. At the end of the unit, each student wrote about their final opinion on the topic- using the evidence they found most compelling during the SAC / SS. There was a pretty even split between students in favor of keeping/replacing the Electoral College in its current form. In all cases, responses were very thoughtful and solution-oriented. Here are some excerpts from their reflections:
- All things considered, the electoral college is not the best way to elect a president due to its poor representation of the people and vote power inflation. In general, the process by which the president is elected is crucial to following the general will of the public.
- During presidential elections, the Electoral College puts American citizens at a disadvantage. The Electoral College favors swing states over safe states. The process does not encourage limited government. Instead, it lessens the citizens’ power. The Electoral College can disregard the popular vote, therefore ignoring the majority opinion. The Electoral College fails to address the overall needs of the American people.
- The Electoral College balances the power between large and small states making it a fair system to elect presidents now and for years to come. Keep in mind the electoral college accurately represented the people in 54/59 elections, and in the 5 elections it didn’t, it accurately represented the majority of states that voted for that candidate.
- If we were to implement another form of voting we would essentially be trading out our current problems for other problems. The perfect election process does not exist and if we are to chase a perfect voting solution we will never reach it. For example, if we were to implement a population vote then although all votes would be equally represented, politicians would unequally cater towards those in urban areas still causing an imbalance. In other words, by solving a problem you start another one that has the same outcome- certain groups of people feel unrepresented in certain years.
What comes next? What did students identify as future opportunities to address this issue?
One of our essential questions for the semester in Civics is “To what extent is our democracy representative?”. I do two-week units on several different supporting questions that have students study multiple perspectives on the Electoral College, Redistricting /Gerrymandering, and Voting Rights vs Voter Fraud: What’s the priority?. Students use these three units to form an evidence-based claim to the essential question. Towards the end of the semester, each student chooses issues they care about and would like to express their opinion in a letter to the editor and then in a letter to a person of influence. Both of these are opportunities where a student could choose to address the Electoral College as part of our “taking informed action” portion of the course.
What advice would you give teachers thinking about opportunities for engaging their students in classroom discussions?
I would advise teachers to take advantage of all of the opportunities that exist to engage students in authentic discussions of controversial issues. There is so much to be gained from activities like this- students evaluated sources, engaged in evidence-based discourse with their peers, heard good evidence to support many different perspectives in the issue, did their best to work in a solutions-oriented approach to build consensus, and all students came out of the activity with an appreciation of this many-sided, complex issue.
In doing similar activities on a variety of topics throughout the year, students are learning to find/use evidence and understand that there are multiple valid points of view on most issues Most importantly, these discussions explicitly teach and have students practice how to engage in a positive and productive dialogue with fellow citizens- even those with whom they disagree. They learn that we must speak respectfully in these discussions and try to build consensus. If we are trying to prepare students to be civically minded and productive democratic citizens, then I think it is imperative to engage all students in these types of activities as much as possible.
The good news is that there are so many great resources out there to make implementing these activities less daunting. Other teachers, websites, and workshops are all readily available so that none of us are on our own in this undertaking. I would particularly recommend taking a Guardians of Democracy course as a good place to get started.