Hands-on English current events activityfor ESL

December 2000 (latest update: Dec. 13, 2000)

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Dear Instructors:

The U.S. election system is pretty complicated, as I'm sure everyone is realizing now. It can be difficult to explain something like the Electoral College to anyone, let alone to students with limited English! Recent events in the 2000 presidential election create the perfect moment, though, to try to clarify how this works. We hope you'll find this text helpful.

Following the student text and discussion questions, we have included some comments by teacher Linda Phipps on how she explains the reason for the Electoral College to her students.

Happy teaching!
Anna Silliman, Editor


Reading activity:
What is the 'Electoral College'?


Points for each state

Every 4 years, Americans vote for a president. After the people's votes are counted, one candidate is the winner in each state. Then that candidate wins all the state's 'electors'. The electors from each of the 50 states are counted up like points. Whoever wins 270 electors becomes President.

How many electors?

The states have different numbers of electors because they have different numbers of people. You can find out the number of electors for any state by adding the number of Senators from that state and the number of members of Congress from that state.

Each state always has 2 Senators. But the members of Congress are based on the number of people. For example, Nebraska has a small population so it has only 3 members of Congress. If you count these 3, plus 2 Senators you find out that Nebraska has 5 electors in a presidential election.

New York is a state with a lot of people. So they have 31 members of Congress. They also have two Senators, like every state. This means they have 33 electors. The state of Florida has 2 Senators and 23 members of Congress, so they have 25 electors.

A difficult election

Usually the candidate with the most votes wins all the electors from that state. In Florida this year, it is very difficult to agree about who got the most votes. In this case, the state Legislature can decide who wins the 25 electors for Florida.

On December 18, the electors in each state will vote for a president. Usually, these people vote exactly the way their state told them to. So we already know who they will vote for. But, it is legal for them to change their vote if they want to. This happened only a few times in American history.

Is this crazy?

Some people think the Electoral College system is crazy. It is possible for one candidate to win more votes in the country, and the other candidate to win more electoral votes. So the Electoral College chooses a president that the people didn't elect. The last time this happened was more than a hundred years ago.

Why do we have this system? The reason is that the smaller states want to keep some power. If we had no Electoral College, all the political power would be in the biggest states.


1. What is the population of your state? (Population means the number of people.)

2. How many Senators does your state have?

3. How many members of Congress does your state have?

4. How many electors does your state have in a presidential election?

5. Who will the electors from your state vote for? Why?



Some Americans don't like the Electoral College system. Why do you think they don't like it?

Do you think the U.S. will change this system? Why or why not?

Further notes for instructors:

Why the Electoral College system??

There are plenty of arguments both for and against the Electoral College. Some politicians recently have called for abolishing it. The League of Women Voters, a non-partisan educational organization, has been calling for an end to the electoral system since 1970. Others have argued that getting rid of it might be more difficult and dangerous than leaving it in place, and that it provides certain safeguards.

Linda Phipps, ESL teacher and HOE Board member in Midwest City, Oklahoma, has shared with us an explanation that she gives her students about the most significant reason we have an Electoral College in the first place. She says:

"Students need to know something about the reason for our government being set up this way in order to understand it. If the large populations of the most populated states all voted for one candidate, the people in those states would be the only ones who "had a voice" in choosing our president, because the sum total of the popular vote in the rest of the states would be in the minority. I did an illustration for my students of a country with 10 states. States 1, 2, and 3 had a sum total of 150,000,000 people and the sum total of the people in the other seven states was only 140,000,000."

"People in less populated states might as well stay home and not even vote. The candidates would not pay any attention to the "small" states as they campaigned - why bother?! All the people who live outside the "big" states would feel like they weren't even part of the country because they would have no "voice" in choosing their president. The electoral college gives the people in every state a vital part in this choice. As we have seen this year as never before, even a small state with 3 electoral votes is extremely important. This lets all the people feel that their votes were extremely important."

Editor's note: I'd be very interested to hear what you and your students thought of this activity! Thank you! We welcome teaching suggestions.--Anna Silliman.


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