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Decode the Election with the PBS Electoral Decoder

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As a Social Studies teacher, it is cliche and almost obligatory that I love maps. My joy in pouring over a map is not limited to determining my destination and defining the clearest route but rather in learning the stories that a good map tells. Many of us can hearken back to a day when large maps occupied significant wall space in classrooms. They not only outlined the 50 states but they followed the paths of warring armies and the spread of religions. A good map reveals much more than borders and landforms. The Electoral College map, for example, gives essential clues to our national character. Looking at changes in the Electoral College map over time, we can trace the political development of the United States, changes in demographics, the struggle for voting rights and the pain and triumph of a country.

Getting to know the powerful PBS Electoral Decoder 

In my government and history courses, the Electoral College map becomes a familiar touchstone for students. We follow, in four-year cycles, the values we hold and what changes are afoot. The PBS Electoral Decoder, part of the extensive collection of PBS LearningMedia resources, is a fantastic tool to help students unearth these stories. The tool is simple but powerful. Students can explore every presidential election to see the Electoral College results, either on the political map of the United States or as a cartogram, which allows students to see the relative size and weight of each state’s electoral vote. Teachers should encourage students to use both features. In particular, the cartogram helps students visualize state population and shifts in population over time.  

Why is one ‘Swing State” more hotly contested than another? 

It also gives clues as to why some states receive more attention from Presidential candidates. Why is Florida more hotly contested than New Hampshire or Iowa during the general election, despite all three states being considered “Swing States”? There are 29 reasons why. As they slide from election to election, they can see the country grow and examine how political alliances emerge and fade with the passage of time. Each election is accompanied by an explanation of the key candidates and issues along with a short timeline of important events in the intervening years. It is a practical tool and a powerful one.

Learning, predicting and sharing

The way I have students use the Electoral Decoder varies by class. In a government class, we are much more practical and applicable in our approach. We look for trends. Which party dominates which region? Why do particular candidates have success in certain places? What the heck are “Swing States” and why should we care about them? These are stories that are accompanied by TV advertisements and campaign visits, debate gaffes and party platforms. We get to explore answerable questions like, “If Ross Perot received almost 20% of the vote in 1992, why doesn’t he show up on the map?” and unanswerable ones like, “What would have happened if Hillary Clinton had visited Wisconsin in 2016?  This last one is of particular interest to my students in Madison, WI. In the days leading up to the election, my students will create their own electoral map predictions based on analysis of historical elections and more recent polling data. Students can even share their prediction right from the Electoral Decoder tool.

Exploring historical shifts in voting through the years

In history classes, the Electoral Decoder becomes a tool for just that, decoding. Like any good historian-in-training, students search for clues to help them uncover greater mysteries. Where do the Southern states disappear to in 1864? Why are Republicans able to win in Southern states from 1868 to 1876, and then not again for another 50 years? Only four times in the last one hundred years has a “third party” won a state.  Who were these people and what did they believe? What do their stories reveal about the divisions and struggles of Americans? Beyond the shifts in who people voted for, what can you learn about the United States and how can you prove it? As an example, in 1920, California had the same number of Electoral votes as Wisconsin. One hundred years later, it has more than five times as many. What can this tell us about the nation and its people?

The tools we provide to students are important. The best tools allow students to explore -- to answer some questions and to uncover new ones and to build critical thinking skills. The PBS Electoral Decoder allows students to analyze data in a clear manner while still challenging them to discover for themselves.  For many teachers in this moment, working with students online, face-to-face, or some combination of the two, a tool that provides the right level of support is key. As I meet with my students via Zoom twice per week, I know that I can’t check for understanding in the same way that I always have. I’m unable to circle the room, eavesdrop on conversations and bring students' ideas to the fore as easily as I’m accustomed to.  

Using critical thinking skills to uncover election secrets

The Electoral Decoder strikes the right balance for my students. It provides context and background but it doesn’t give away its secrets. Students need to do their own digging, and if supported with the right questions, they can not only find answers to our national mysteries but they can discover a few of their own. Hopefully, if we as teachers encourage exploration, and provide the right levels of support, we can create a new generation of map lovers and critical thinkers. Encourage your students to explore historical elections and think about how those elections might influence today’s map. What will the 2020 race bring? What states may shift and will those political alliances hold? Challenge your students to use critical thinking, make their own predictions and then share ideas with others. 

PBS LearningMedia has curated free, standards-aligned videos, interactives, lesson plans and more for teachers. The Electoral Decoder is part of PBS LearningMedia’s extensive array of tools for students which allows for exploration of all 58 past presidential elections from 1789-2016. In the support materials, background information and activities created by PBS NewsHour Extra encourage students to examine how the Electoral College has shaped previous presidential elections. Using the ‘Presidential Predictor,’ students can make calculated guesses about how the electors will vote in the 2020 presidential election.

David Olson

David Olson Educator

David Olson is a veteran teacher and leader in Social Studies and Civic education. He currently teaches AP U.S. Government and Politics, Criminal Justice, and Modern U.S. History at James Madison Memorial High School in Madison, WI. David believes that many of his lessons are best accomplished with digital content, saying, “When I have my students experience life inside a solitary confinement cell using a VR headset – or [invite them to] create their own political advertisements, it sparks their curiosity and leads them to think of new problems to solve.”

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