2020 Elections & Federalism: The Electoral College and Voting Methods

The United States does not have a single national election. When we vote, we are voting not for a person, but rather for a slate of electors pledged to one of the candidates. In all but 2 states (NE and ME) the winner of the popular vote receives all electoral college votes for that state. The Electoral College has 538 members, one for each U.S. senator and representative, and three additional electors representing the District of Columbia. Currently, all states select electors through a popular vote.

The federal system in the United States is a concept that is often difficult for students to identify with and understand in its complexity.  The 2020 election provides a fantastic opportunity to discuss how the difference in state and federal responsibilities can lead to not only different policies but also different narratives about political outcomes.  The United States does not have a single national election but rather 50 state elections that are governed by 50 sets of rules regarding the ballot, polling places, ways to vote, and vote counting.  Much of the confusion and the narratives both candidates and their parties were playing to on election night and in the days following were a result of the federal system at work.  The representative capacity of our institutions reflect the diversity of the laws governing the elections process in the United States.  This Election Spark provides basic information on the federal nature of the election system and how that led to the election result of 2020. 

Instructors, click the link below to download this week’s lecture for use in your classroom. The deck contains a writing prompt and a debate question as well as other assessment questions.

Download the PowerPoint Lecture Spark for “Federalism: The Electoral College"

Links

“The Electoral College”
https://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/the-electoral-college.aspx

“2020 Shows Why the Electoral College Is Stupid and Immoral”
https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/13/opinion/biden-trump-electoral-college.html

“In Defense of the Electoral College”
https://www.nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/in-defense-of-the-electoral-college

“Election Administration in The States”
https://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/election-administration-at-state-and-local-levels.aspx

“State Laws Governing Early Voting”
https://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/early-voting-in-state-elections.aspx

“Voting Should Be Easy. Why Isn’t it?”
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/18/opinion/registration-vote-midterms.html

“Mail-In ballots make voter fraud easy. I know because I did it.”
https://www.sun-sentinel.com/opinion/commentary/fl-op-com-menge-mail-in-ballots-fraud-florida-20200416-hanmbneuendpbaftyktpactlga-story.html

“Vote Counting Continues in Tense US Presidential Race”
https://www.voanews.com/2020-usa-votes/vote-counting-continues-tense-us-presidential-race

“Biden Edges Closer to Victory”
https://www.nytimes.com/live/2020/11/05/us/us-election-results

“”It is not cheating, it is democracy”: A first-hand look at ballot counting in Pennsylvania”
https://www.cbsnews.com/news/pennsylvania-ballot-counting-2020-election-60-minutes/

Assessment

  • Debate: The Electoral College allows small states to remain relevant in national elections.
  • Poll: We should abolish the Electoral College and allow the national popular vote to elect the president.  
  • We would have fairer elections if the Federal government took over election administration for all elections?
  • Short Answer:  Using the data and articles provided, please explain why Joe Biden won the presidency even though he was behind on election night.

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