While I realize many of our readers are not based in the US nor teaching American government, the Electoral College is such an interesting oddity in electoral decision making that its a subject that may come up in Comparative Politics courses as well. Certainly when I teach US politics I use quite a few comparative examples, as one of my themes of the course is how government arises from a series of decisions made by individuals and groups, none of which are or were set in stone. Showing alternative models is a very useful way of doing this.
So here is a data analysis exercise that I use to teach the American Electoral College. It can be done either as homework or as an-in class as an activity after a basic introduction to the Electoral College and how it works (the basic premise of state-by-state popular vote, proportional votes based on number of seats in Congress, winner take all systems, and if no one wins a majority, the decision is made by the House with state-by-state voting).
This exercise can be easily reformed for a final exam. Simply change the data and situations. In the version below I use 9 states in a fictional world; in the exam version, I use about 20 states in a different world. I never use the entire US or actual vote totals–this is largely to keep the math simple enough that it is not a test of arithmetic but of analysis. Feel free to change the names of candidates and states to suit your own interests.
Here is what I give to the students:
Voting System Exercise
There are 9 states in this Alternate United States of America, with a total of 50 electoral college votes up for grabs. That’s 1 electoral college vote for every 10,000 citizens. Each state has just voted in the presidential election, which is conducted exactly the same as the real United States. There were three candidates: Malcolm Reynolds of the Serenity Party, Kara Thrace of the Galactica Party, and Draco Malfoy of the Slytherin Party (a small, third party). The problem is that election officials have forgotten what the electoral rules are!
Below, you will see the vote totals in each state as well as the number of electors for each state. Assume that the Alternate United States operates according to the same basic principles as the real United States, with a bicameral Congress and Electoral College, unless told otherwise. It is your job to tell the election officials who has won the election according to each method of the following voting rules. Keep in mind the rules regarding the number of electoral votes needed and what happens should there be no clear winner or a tie. Assume that each state’s electors and representatives will abide by the popular vote results in each state. Also, if necessary, always round to the nearest whole number to determine the awarding of electoral college votes.
Note: Students are then asked to answer the following questions. You will see that the answer is different based on the electoral rules, which is the point–I want students to see that the electoral rules matter quite a bit in determining victory. This point was certainly driven home in the 2000 and 2016 elections where the candidate that won the national popular vote did not win the presidency, but it helps to make it very concrete for students and give them even more alternative systems to consider.
- Voting Rule One: The Electoral College. The regular Electoral College rules apply for the awarding of electors. Which candidate wins? Why?
- Voting Rule Two: Proportional method. Instead of a winner take all system, all states determine the distribution of votes using a statewide proportional model, with each state awarding their Electoral College votes according to the percent of the popular vote each candidate wins. The rest of the EC rules continue to apply. Which candidate wins the election? Why?
- Voting Rule Three: No Third Parties Allowed. Use the same conditions as in the Proportional method, but there are two changes to the vote totals. First, Draco Malfoy drops out of the race prior to the election. All of his supporters instead vote for their second choice, Kara Thrace. Second, 10,000 Malcolm Reynolds supporters in the state of Vulcan also switch their vote to Kara Thrace–they had only supported Reynolds while Malfoy was in the race. Which candidate wins the election? Why?
- Voting Rule Four: The Popular Vote method. The Alternate US amends the Constitution to eliminate the Electoral College, and instead chooses a president based on a national popular vote. Use the original vote totals (ignore changes in 2). Who wins? Why?
I’ve included the answers below, but as you will see, the vote totals are set up to ensure that different candidates win if the rules change. You can use this to discuss different models of voting–feel free to add your own twists on the data or to insert different models. You can also add questions about campaigning—which states would candidates likely spend their time in under normal Electoral College rules (eg Wall) v. under a popular vote system? You can also ask students about the benefits and flaws of different systems, whether the Electoral College should be scrapped, and or why the EC has persisted despite criticisms and alternatives.
- Kara Thrace. She gets 30 EC votes and Reynolds 20. 30 is a majority of 50.
- Malcolm Reynolds. The proportional split gives Reynolds 26 EC votes (a majority of 50), Thrace 23, and Malfoy 1.
- This one is complicated, but Thrace wins. The changes in Vulcan give Thrace 2 additional EC votes (the Malfoy vote and one of the Reynolds votes), making it a tie, 25-25. Ties are decided in the House, with states voting by delegation according to the popular vote. Since Thrace won the most states (6 to Reynolds’ 3), she would win.
- Reynolds. He wins with 260,000 votes to Thrace’s 230,001 and Malfoy’s 10,000.