Every Four Years: Introducing Presidential Elections

Lesson Overview

The students will examine, explain, and evaluate Article II, Section 1 of the US Constitution for specific information concerning the eligibility requirements and election process for the office of President of the United States and develop a position and express a viewpoint on the lesson’s "essential question": "How democratic is the American election process for the office of president?"

Lesson Objectives

Students will be able to

  • Identify and explain the constitutional eligibility requirements and the process and procedure for the election of the president
  • Evaluate the extent to which the constitutional election process is democratic

Essential Question

"How democratic is the American election process for the office of president?"

Historical Background

Electing a President of the United States is a complex, expensive, and extended process. Today, a successful presidential candidate must initially win the nomination of a major political party, such as the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. In order to be selected by a political party, a candidate must compete against rival candidates within this political party in a series of state primaries to win a majority of the delegates to the political party's national convention. Those delegates select the party's nominee. They also develop the policies and positions on important issues that will be highlighted and described in the political party's platform to be presented to the American people during the presidential campaign. After presidential nominees have been selected by each political party, they will campaign around the nation, attempting to persuade the American people to vote for them on Election Day, which occurs on the Tuesday immediately after the first Monday in November.

The delegates who wrote the US Constitution in 1787 were reluctant to have the President of the United States elected directly by the people through a popular vote. Instead, they established an indirect process for electing the President whereby special electors, who form an Electoral College, choose the President. Since the presidential election of 1796, the political parties have named electors who are pledged in advance (but not obligated) to vote for the political party’s presidential candidate. Therefore, the American people vote for a group (or slate) of electors who are pledged to cast votes in the Electoral College for the presidential candidate who reflects the people’s wishes. In most states the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote of the people wins the entire slate ("winner-take-all") of the state’s electors in the Electoral College.

The size of the Electoral College is determined by the total number of representatives and senators in Congress plus three electors from Washington, DC.Since there are 535 voting members of Congress (435 Representatives and 100 Senators), the Electoral College consists of 538 electors. A winning presidential candidate must secure an Electoral College majority, or 270 votes. If the Electoral College does not provide the required majority vote, then the House of Representatives chooses the president from the three candidates who have attained the most electoral votes, with each state congressional delegation having one vote. The successful candidate must receive the votes of a majority (26) of the state delegations.



  1. Review the section of your textbook that covers the presidential election process and Article II, Section 1 of the US Constitution.
  2. As a motivation to enhance the pupils' interest in the topic of the lesson, ask the students to list the "steps" that a person has take to become President of the United States. In order to help students understand what they are being asked to do, have the students draw a staircase in their notebooks that can be used to illustrate the many steps that a candidate has to climb in order to reach the office of president.
  3. Divide the class into mixed-ability groups. Assign a recorder for each group and give them markers and a large flip chart to record responses.
  4. Review with the class the rules for brainstorming and group work. (For example, the recorder must write down all responses and cannot edit; all members should take part in the discussion.)
  5. Pass out the "Introducing Presidential Elections" worksheet. Read and discuss this handout with your students. Discuss the steps that the most recent candidates followed to become the nominees of their parties.
  6. The recorder for each group will then share the answers with the entire class.
  7. Ask the class what they would keep, add, and delete from the process of electing the president.
  8. Examine with the students the information related to the Electoral College in Article II, Section 1, Clause 2. As a follow-up,have the class examine the Federal Election Commission’s chart Distribution of Electoral Votes.
  9. Students should be asked to analyze specific data from the chart. For example: How many states have gained / lost electoral votes? As an additional activity, distribute a map of the United States and ask the students to identify the state(s) they would campaign in and why. As a result of this, students should understand why candidates tend to spend more time in states with higher populations rather than in states with smaller populations.
  10. Assign each student to a state, allocating to each student the number of that state’s electoral votes. Using a recent or upcoming election as their example, the students will cast their state’s electoral votes for a presidential candidate. If no candidate achieves a majority of the electoral votes, explain how the selection process will continue in the House of Representatives. Then discuss past elections in which the electoral vote was in dispute.
  11. As a concluding assignment, have the students compose a brief letter to the editor of your local newspaper explaining their views about retaining or eliminating the Electoral College system.

Summary Question

How democratic is the American election process for the office of president?

Application Question

Should the United States amend the Constitution to elect the president by popular vote rather than by electoral vote?