“If you were looking for how dysfunctional the American system of electing the president is, it would be hard to top last week’s federal appeals court ruling allowing ‘electors’ — the members of the Electoral College — to vote for whomever they want, rather than the candidate they were pledged to support.” Editorial Board, The New York Times
ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post with Answer Key
“Wait,” you might say, ‘someone I’ve never even heard of can just throw out my vote for president?’ Well, yes. Or maybe not.
First some background: Micheal Baca was a Democratic elector in Colorado in 2016, pledged to Hillary Clinton, who won the state.
Mr. Baca believed Mr. Trump’s electoral victory posed an existential threat to the country, so he began a campaign, with a Democratic elector in Washington State, to persuade electors of both parties to break their pledges and vote for someone they might agree was qualified for the job — like John Kasich, the former Ohio governor and 2016 Republican presidential candidate.
If there were enough ‘faithless electors,’ either Mr. Kasich would be president or the electoral vote would be deadlocked and the election thrown to the House.
While almost no one else joined Mr. Baca’s cause, he cast his ballot for Mr. Kasich anyway, in symbolic protest. In doing so he broke a Colorado law requiring electors pledged to the person who wins the state’s popular vote to cast their ballot for that candidate. The state replaced him with an elector who voted for Mrs. Clinton. Mr. Baca sued, saying that Colorado’s law — similar to those in more than two dozen states — violated his right to cast his electoral vote however he chose, as the framers intended.
Citing Alexander Hamilton’s dictum that the College ensured that ‘the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications,’ Mr. Baca and his allies called themselves ‘Hamilton electors.’
The National Popular Vote! What It Is-Why It’s Needed
The Aug. 20 ruling from a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, in Denver, backed up his constitutional claim.
The decision was the reverse of a ruling by the Washington State Supreme Court in May that upheld that state’s law imposing a fine of $1,000 on three faithless electors, including Mr. Baca’s ally. That court noted that the Constitution gives states near-total authority over electors.
If the United States Supreme Court steps in to resolve the conflicting rulings, it will of course note that Hamilton’s vision has not been a reality for more than 200 years.
After electors unanimously chose the nonpartisan George Washington in the first two elections, national political parties developed and electors became partisan actors who voted for their party’s candidate.
In other words, electors aren’t distinguished citizens weighing whether the people have made a wise decision on their presidential ballot; they are men and women chosen because of their partisan loyalty. So it’s understandable that after years of tightly contested elections, Americans are aghast that an elector would dare to substitute his judgment for the will of the people.
But even if Mr. Baca were to win a Supreme Court ruling, not much would change. Outside of a few scattered symbolic protests, electors are almost never truly faithless, even when there’s no law stopping them.
Consider the 2000 election, when George W. Bush won states representing 271 electoral votes — just one more than the minimum he needed to prevail.
Despite losing the popular vote to Al Gore, Mr. Bush didn’t lose a single elector.
If states were forbidden from determining how their electors vote, parties would only be more careful about vetting prospective electors.
The point is that faithless electors are not the real problem. What really disregards the will of the people is the winner-take-all rule currently used by every state but Maine and Nebraska…
The winner-take-all rule encourages campaigns to focus on closely divided battleground states, where a swing of even a few hundred votes can move a huge bloc of electors — creating presidents out of popular-vote losers, like George W. Bush and Donald Trump.
This violates the central democratic (or, if you prefer, republican) premises of political equality and majority rule.
What most people don’t realize is that the winner-take-all rule exists nowhere in the Constitution. It’s a pure creation of the states. They can award their electors by congressional district, as Maine and Nebraska do, or in proportion to the state’s popular vote, as several states have considered.
Or they could award them to the candidate who wins the most votes nationwide, regardless of the state outcome. That’s the elegant approach of the National Popular Vote interstate compact, which achieves a popular vote not by abolishing the College but by using it as the framers designed it — as a state-based institution. So far 15 states and the District of Columbia, with 196 electoral votes among them, have joined the compact, promising to award their electors to the national vote-winner.
The compact goes into effect once it is joined by states representing 270 electoral votes — the bare majority needed to become president — thus guaranteeing the White House to the candidate who won the most votes.
Critics say that relying on the popular vote would allow the presidency to be decided by the big cities on the coasts, but big cities don’t come close to having enough votes to swing a national election…
It’s unlikely that battleground states will abandon winner-take-all on their own, since it would lessen their political power. But right now a constitutional amendment to eliminate it would be as unlikely as one eliminating the Electoral College itself.
The College has survived not because it makes sense, but because one party or the other has believed it gives them an advantage. That may be smart politics, but it’s terrible for a democracy.”
NOTE: Lessons can also be used with native English speakers.
Level: Intermediate – Advanced
Language Skills: Reading, writing, and speaking. Vocabulary and grammar activities are included.
Time: Approximately 2 hours.
Materials: Student handout (from this lesson) and access to news article.
Objective: Students will read and discuss the article with a focus on improving reading comprehension and improving oral skills. At the end of the lesson students will express their personal views on the topic through group work and writing.
I. Pre-Reading Activities
Directions: Have students use the KWL chart to list the information they already know about the Electoral College.. Later in the Post- Reading segment of the lesson, students can fill in what they’ve learned about the topic.
II. While Reading Activities
Directions: Students are to infer the meanings of the words in bold taken from the article. They may use a dictionary, thesaurus, and Word Chart for assistance.
- Micheal Baca pledged to Hillary Clinton in 2016.
- Mr. Baca cited Alexander Hamilton’s dictum.
- He had his allies on his side.
- He cast his ballot for Mr. Kasich.
- Some say that the state violated his right to cast his electoral vote.
- Parties would be more careful about vetting prospective electors.
- There was a chance that the electoral vote would be deadlocked.
- The decision was the reverse of a ruling by the Washington State Supreme Court.
- The United States Supreme Court stepped in to resolve the conflicting rulings.
- Americans are aghast that an elector would dare to substitute his judgment for the will of the people.
Grammar Focus: Word -Recognition
Directions: Students choose the correct word to complete the sentences taken from the article. They are to choose from the options presented.
Micheal Baca was/wasn’t a Democratic elector in/on Colorado in 2016. Mr. Baca believe/believed Trump’s electoral victory posed/pose an/a existential threat from/to the country. While almost no one else joined Mr. Baca’s cause, he/his cast his ballot for Mr. Kasich anyway…The August 20 ruling in/from a three-judge panel of the/an United States Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, in/on Denver, backed up his constitutional claim.
Reading Comprehension Fill-ins
Directions: Place students in groups and after they have read the entire article, have them complete the following sentences taken from the article. They can use the words and terms from the list provided, or provide their own terms. They are to find the meanings of any new vocabulary.
In other words, ___aren’t distinguished___weighing whether the people have made a wise ___on their ___ballot; they are men and women chosen because of their partisan loyalty. So it’s understandable that after___ of tightly contested elections, ___are ___that an elector would dare to substitute his ___for the will of the people.
WORD LIST: aghast, judgment, presidential, electors, Americans, years, citizens, decision,
III Post Reading
Directions: Have students use the WH-question format to discuss or to write the main points from the article.
Who or What is the article about?
Where does the action/event take place?
When does the action/event take place?
Why did the action/event occur?
How did the action/event occur?
Discussion Questions for Comprehension /Writing
Directions: Place students in groups and have them discuss the following questions/statements. Afterwards, have the groups share their thoughts as a class. To reinforce the ideas, students can write an essay on one of the topics mentioned.
- What are some of the problems with the current Electoral College?
- What is it that most people don’t realize about the winner-take-all rule? Where was this rule created?
- The article states, “Despite more than 700 proposals for amendments to reform or abolish the Electoral College — by far the most of any provision of the Constitution — it has remained.” Why is the Electoral College still in use in many states?
- Why is the National Popular Vote interstate compact considered to be fair?
- What are some of the criticisms of the National Popular Voting system?
- In your opinion, which better represents the true vote of the American people, the Electoral College or the National Popular Vote? Explain why.
Directions: Allow students 5 minutes to write down three new ideas they’ve learned about the topic from the reading,two things they did not understand in the reading, and one thing they would like to know that the article did not mention. Review the responses as a class.