Lessons on Voting in Presidential Elections
in the United States of America

The President of the United States of America is elected by indirect popular vote among eligible voters.  Although all voters must be at least 18 years old, other requirements for voter eligibility are determined on a state-by-state basis.

Activity:  Research your state’s voter eligibility requirements.  Write a paragraph sharing the information you learned, as well as your opinion on why eligible voters should actually vote. 

At the beginning of each presidential election year (every fourth year – i.e., 2004, 2008, 2012, and so on), eligible voters cast their votes in caucuses/conventions and primaries across the nation.  Technically, the caucuses/conventions and primaries are not supposed to begin any sooner than the first Tuesday in February of the election year (also known as Super Tuesday), but there are some that begin earlier than that date.  The caucuses/conventions and primaries generally end in June.

Activity:  Which states begin voting earlier than Super Tuesday?  Is there a penalty for starting earlier?  If so, what is the penalty?  Are some states allowed to break this rule without being penalized?  If so, which states?  Why can some states break the rule without a penalty, but not other states?  Do both political parties handle this situation the same way?   Write an essay sharing the information you learned.

As there are two main political parties in the United States of America – the Democratic and Republican parties – the caucuses/conventions and primaries focus on these two parties.  This does not mean third party or independent candidates cannot run for President, or that independents cannot vote.  In some states, independents are permitted to attend primaries and/or caucuses/conventions and cast their votes (but they cannot cast a vote for a candidate in both parties).  (Also, in some states, voters who are affiliated with one political party may cross over to cast a vote for someone running for the other political party, but may not vote in caucuses/conventions or primaries for both parties.)

Activity:  Do research to find out what the general position of each of the two main political parties is on key political issues.  In other words, what are the main differences between Democrats and Republicans?  Write a pamphlet/brochure for each political party.  Do research to find out how your state handles votes of independents in the caucuses/conventions or primaries.  Also research what steps must be taken by a person who wants to run to be President as a third party or independent candidate.  Write a paragraph or essay sharing the information you learned.  Do research to find out when the most recent third party or independent team ran for President/Vice President.  Make a timeline sharing about that team's progress throughout the campaign process.  Include pictures of the candidates (presidential and vice presidential) on the timeline.      

In the caucuses/conventions and primaries, eligible voters are indirectly voting for the presidential candidate of their choice.  In reality, in the primaries, eligible voters are voting for delegates who will cast their vote for a particular candidate at the party’s national convention.  In the caucuses/conventions, eligible voters are voting for delegates who will cast their vote for a particular candidate at the next level up in the caucus/convention progression (which can go up several levels until, usually, the top level of a state convention).  The rules for caucuses/conventions vary depending on the state and political party.  Generally speaking, the first level of caucuses/conventions are meetings held in different public areas (like town halls or schools).  At these initial meetings, eligible voters of a particular political party may attend and hear speeches in support of the different candidates who are running to be the presidential candidate for that party.  The eligible voters at the caucuses/conventions then get to vote for the person they want to represent their political party as a presidential candidate.  Again, though, in reality they are voting for delegates who will vote at the next level up in the caucuses/conventions.

Activity:  Does your state use caucuses/conventions or primaries?  If your state uses primaries, when does your state vote?  If your state uses caucuses/conventions, find out when they are held and how many levels there are.  Does your state have a state convention?  If so, find out when and where the state convention will be held for the current presidential election year. How does each party of your state select delegates for each level of the caucuses/conventions?  Write a paragraph (for primaries) or essay (for caucuses/conventions) sharing the information you learned.

The Democratic and Republican parties use different methods for determining how many delegate votes a particular candidate will get at that party’s national convention.  As of the writing of this article, the Democratic Party allocates delegate votes to each presidential candidate at the Democratic national convention in proportion to the number of votes each candidate received in each state.  For example, consider an election year with four Democrats running for President and a state that has 10 Democratic delegate votes.  If one candidate receives 40% of the popular vote, another receives 30%, another receives 20%, and another receives 10%, this will translate to four delegate votes for the first, three for the second, two for the third, and one for the last candidate.  Currently, the Republican Party uses either this same proportional method or a “winner-takes-all” method.  In the “winner-takes-all” method, the candidate who wins the majority of the popular votes for his/her political party in a particular state will receive all of that state’s delegate votes for that party at that party’s national convention.  Each individual state can choose which method it wants to use to determine how many delegates from that state will vote for which candidate at the national convention.

Activity:  Do research to find out which method (allocation or "winner-takes-all") each party is using in your state during this election year.  During this year’s election, how many delegate votes are available for the entire Democratic Party?  How about for the entire Republican Party?  How many delegate votes will your state give to each party?  For this election year, how many delegate votes does a Democratic presidential candidate need in order to win that party’s selection at the national convention?  How about a Republican presidential candidate?  Please note that the process for determining how many delegates will represent a political party in a particular state is based on a formula (the formula being different for each political party).  Refer to http://www.thegreenpapers.com/Hx/NatDelegates2004.html to read about the history of how the number of delegates for each political party has changed throughout America’s history.  How are the delegates chosen in your state for each party?  Write a booklet sharing the information you learned.

Write a brief biography on the top two to four Republican candidates for President and the top two to four Democratic candidates.  Include a picture, where and when they were born, their current place of residence, their political affiliation, their views on major issues (e.g., abortion, foreign policy, health care, immigration, marriage, job & economy, education, faith/family values, energy, legal reform, tax reform, national safety/security, social security, etc.), and anything else you think is important.  Write a campaign speech for your favorite candidate.

After the state primaries and caucuses/conventions have been held (they typically end in June of the election year), both major political parties hold national conventions.  It is at the national conventions that each party officially determines who the presidential candidate will be for that party.  In addition, the presidential candidate officially announces the name of his/her vice presidential running mate.  The candidates also officially state their party’s platform at the conventions.  It is also important to note that in addition to delegates to the national conventions being voted for during the caucuses/conventions and primaries, each major party also sends additional "party leaders and elected officials" to their respective national conventions.  These additional leaders and officials also get to vote at their national conventions for the person they want to run for President for their party.  The Democrats often refer to these additional voters as "superdelegates." 

Activity:  For the 2008 presidential election, how many additional "party leaders and elected officials" will the Democrats be sending to their national convention? How about the Republicans?  Who are these additional voters?  How do you feel about these people being able to vote at the national conventions when they were not voted by the public to be delegates to the national conventions?  Share your findings and thoughts in an essay.       

How does each political party handle the delegate votes at their national convention?  What other people besides the presidential candidates and their running mates, the delegates from each state, and the additional "party leaders and elected officials" are invited to attend the national conventions?  Write a paragraph or essay sharing the information you learned.

Once the national conventions have been held, make a booklet for each political party stating the names of the presidential and vice presidential candidates for each party, as well as the basics of their political platform.  Include pictures of the candidates and their families in the booklets.

Both national conventions are typically held by the end of August in the election year.  This allows enough time before the national general election in November for the presidential/vice presidential teams to campaign throughout the nation as a united front for their respective parties.  The party of the President who currently holds office has the right to have its convention second, closer to the date of the national general election.

Activity:  Do research to find out when and where the national conventions will be held this year.  For the 2008 election year, the Republican national convention will be held later than normal (in September).  Why will it be held so late this year?  Write a paragraph sharing the information you learned.

The national general election is held on the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November of the election year.  On Election Day, voters are not actually voting for a presidential candidate who is running for office.  Instead, voters are voting for a group of electors (part of the electoral college) from their state.  The members of the electoral college have each pledged to vote for a specific presidential/vice presidential team.  (Although members of the electoral college have pledged to vote for a specific team, in some states they are legally permitted to vote for candidates besides the ones for whom they pledged to vote. This does not typically occur, though.)  The number of electoral college members in each state is determined by the number of U.S. Representatives and U.S. Senators each state has.  Each state has one electoral college member for each of that state’s members in the U.S. House of Representatives (how many representatives a state has is determined by its population) plus two additional electoral college members (as each state has two U.S. Senators).  (Although the District of Columbia is not a state and does not have U.S. Senators or U.S. Representatives, it is currently allocated three electoral college votes.)

Activity:  Do research to find out why the above day was selected for the national general election day.  What is the specific election date for this year’s general election?  Also do research to find out when and if an elector did ever vote for someone besides the person for whom he/she pledged to vote.  What were the circumstances surrounding that person’s decision to change his/her mind?  Did the elector pay any consequences for changing his/her mind?  How are members of the electoral college selected?  Does it change by state?  If so, how does your state select its members?  Does it change by party?  If so, how does each party from your state select its members?  Write a series of paragraphs or essays sharing the information you learned.

For the 2008 election, how many electoral college votes does each state have?  Print out a map showing the number of electoral college members by state.  For an election night activity, make a chart with four columns.  In the first column, type the name of each state plus the District of Columbia.  In the second column, type the number of Electoral College votes each state (plus D.C.) gets.  At the top of the third column, type the names of the Democratic presidential/vice presidential team members.  At the top of the fourth column, type the names of the Republican presidential/vice presidential team members.  On the night of the general election, keep track of how many electoral college votes each party wins.  Color code the electoral college map using red for one party and blue for the other to also show how many states each party wins.

Upon gathering together in their respective state capitol buildings, the members of the electoral college cast their votes on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December.  With the exception of Maine and Nebraska (where electoral votes may be divided between candidates), the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote in a particular state wins all the electoral college votes for that state.  There is a separate vote for President and Vice President, and no electoral college members can vote for two candidates from their own state.  (This is one of several reasons why presidential candidates generally choose a running mate from another state.)

Activity:  Do research to find out how Maine and Nebraska allow their votes to be divided.  What are some other reasons presidential candidates generally choose a running mate from another state?  Have there ever been presidential/vice presidential teams where both candidates were from the same state?  If so, describe the situation.  Write a series of paragraphs or essays sharing the information you learned.

After the electoral college votes have been cast, each Certificate of Vote is sent to Congress.  Typically on January 6, and before a joint session of both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, the President of the Senate opens the certificates and officially counts them.  The winning President and Vice President are announced only if each received an absolute majority (half plus one) of the electoral college votes.  If there was no absolute majority vote for President according to the electoral college vote (this can particularly happen if there is a third party candidate running for office), then the U.S. House of Representatives votes for the President.  Again, an absolute majority is required for a winner to be declared.  If there was no absolute majority vote for Vice President according to the electoral college vote, then the Senate votes for the Vice President.

Activity:  Has a president ever won the popular vote but lost the electoral college vote?  If so, how many times has this happened and describe the circumstances of each?  Has a candidate ever had to be voted into office by the U.S. House of Representatives or the U.S. Senate?  If so, describe the circumstances.  Write a series of paragraphs or essays sharing the information you learned.

The newly elected President and Vice President are sworn into office in Washington, D.C. on Inauguration Day.  Inauguration Day is January 20 of the year following the presidential election year (e.g., January 20, 2009 for the 2008 election).  The newly elected President and his family then move into their place of residence during the President’s term of office.  That place of residence is 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.  The newly elected Vice President and his family move into their place of residence during the Vice President’s term of office.  That place of residence is the corner of 34th Street and Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, D.C.  The house is located on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory and is often referred to as the Admiral’s House as it used to be the house of the chief of the Naval Observatory.

Activity:  Where does the Inauguration take place?  Who is invited to attend?  Who swears in the newly elected President and Vice President?  What is the oath of office for each?  What other events typically take place at the Inauguration besides the swearing-in ceremonies?  Write an essay sharing the information you learned.  Make a photo scrapbook of Inauguration Day events for the candidates who won this year’s election.  Include photos of the newly elected President and Vice President and their families.  Include in the photo scrapbook pictures of the Washington, D.C. places of residence for both the President and the Vice President.                                      

It has been my observation through the years (and probably that of many others) that America tends to make things more complicated than they need to be.  Don't get me wrong.  I absolutely LOVE this country!  I am exceedingly thankful that the Lord blessed me with my being born in America.  I'm sure others feel the same way about the countries in which they were born.  I hope they do, anyway.  For me, though, I love living in this "land of the free, home of the brave."

That being said, I do still think things can be unnecessarily convoluted at times.  Just look at our tax laws!  As another example, consider America's presidential voting system.  Ironically, I grew up thinking we have a simple system.  I was taught that once you turn of legal voting age (currently 18), it is your civic duty and privilege to register to vote.  It is particularly your duty and honor to vote for the President every four years; and whichever candidate gets the most votes wins.  I have to admit that through all my years in public school, I do not recall ever being taught the concept of an electoral college system.  If I was taught about it, the lesson was certainly not taught in a way that I would understand or remember it (and I say this having been a very focused and dedicated learner all my life).  It wasn't until I majored in Political Science in college that I recall first hearing about the electoral college system.  (I graduated with a BS degree in Political Science with a specialization in American Government.)  

As a long-time homeschool mom (homeschooling since 1992), throughout the years I have made sure to teach our children (we have six) about the electoral college system.  During the presidential election year of 2008, I decided to put together a new series of lessons/activities on the topic of how Americans vote for President.  I figured I'd post my lessons on my website in case they are of help to other parents/teachers.  I hope they spark some interesting "talk on politics" in your families/classrooms.

May God bless you and America!

Tammy <+><
   
        

Additional Activity:  Research both sides of the issue, "Should America reform the electoral college system?"  With which side do you agree?  Write an essay defending your position.  If you believe the system should be reformed, be sure to include your ideas on how it should be reformed.
LESSONS AND ACTIVITIES