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Lesson Plans

Should the Electoral College stay or go?

October 13, 2020

Full Lesson


Did you know that in 2016, Donald Trump won the Electoral College vote over Hillary Clinton despite losing the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes? How could this happen? Fair or not fair? Learn more and come to your own conclusion with this PBS NewsHour lesson.


Civics, Government, Social Studies

Estimated Time

One or two 45-minute class periods


Students will:

  1. Understand how the Electoral College system works.
  2. Analyze and debate the pros and cons of the Electoral College system.


  1. Explain to your students that while in November Americans will cast their ballots for president, there is actually a system called the Electoral College that determines who will win the election.
    • Often ignored, Americans had a lesson on the workings of the Electoral College after the 2000 election, in which Al Gore won the popular vote but George W. Bush became president.
    • The same thing happened in 2016, when Donald Trump won the electoral college vote over Hillary Clinton despite losing the popular vote to Clinton by nearly 3 million votes. Learn more with this video: How 2016 put pressure on the Electoral College.

2. Ask your students what they remember about the 2016 election. Explain that Donald Trump won 304 electoral votes to Hillary Clinton’s 227.

3. Explain that each state and the District of Columbia are given a share of the electoral vote based on population. Electors are chosen by the states to actually cast the official votes for president. Because of how the system is set up, it is possible for one candidate to win the popular vote and another to win the electoral vote.

  • After the 2000 election, a majority of Americans favored abolishing the system, and by 2020, that number had risen to 61%. However, no bill to do so has been voted on in Congress since 1971. Why? Tell your students they will now try to answer that very question.

Handout: The Electoral College

Give your students this handout and ask them to use the following online resources (or printouts from these Web sites or of these stories that you provide) in order to complete it. Students may work individually or in small groups.

FEC: The Electoral College
National Archives: U.S. Electoral College

Group activity: Debate

After students have completed their handouts, have them debate the pros and cons of the Electoral College. First, have students meet in small groups to discuss and debate. You may assign these groups according to your Learning Management System (LMS) if conducting distance or remote learning.

  • What do they think about the system?
  • Do they think it is fair?
  • Would they like to see the system changed? Why or why not?

Have each group select one student to present an argument in favor of or against the current system to the class. The group as a whole should help that student to prepare his or her argument. Selected students then present to the class as a whole. End with a class discussion. What can your students conclude? Why does the system continue?

Extension activities

  1. Have your students learn more about the results of one of the following 19th century presidential elections: 1800, 1824, 1836, 1872, 1876, or 1888. Students share their findings. Discuss. What surprised them? What did they learn about the American system of electing the president from these elections? What can they conclude from these elections? What relevance do they have today?
  2. Refer students to PBS Learning Media’s Electoral Decoder to see how the next election might be decided. Students can assign states and electoral college points to presidential candidates to see what it would take for each to win.

Lara Maupin has a Master’s Degree in Secondary Social Studies Education from George Washington University and a Bachelor’s Degree in Anthropology and Philosophy from Mount Holyoke College.

Media literacy education

What is media literacy?

Media literacy is the ability to access, evaluate and create all types of media, including news media.

All of NewsHour Classroom's resources contain lessons in media literacy, including questions like who produced the piece and what do you know about them?

Start by evaluating this video introducing NewsHour Classroom here.