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Lesson Plans

Lesson plan: Contested elections in American history

October 22, 2020

Full Lesson


For a Word doc version of this lesson, click here. For a Google doc version, click here.


Sometimes it helps to know that current debates that divide the nation have occurred elsewhere in history. This is the case with contested elections. It doesn’t mean that all the details are the same between 1876 and 2020, or that history repeating itself is something we have to readily accept. But it’s usually helpful to know about related events from the past and lessons we can learn as we compare them to today.


History, U.S. Government, Civics

Estimated Time

One 50-minute class period

Grade Level



  • Students will learn about elections that have been contested in American History.
  • Students will understand the political and legal controversies that have surrounded these types of elections, and they will leave with a better understanding of what happened in 2020.


  1. Start by watching this 5 minute TEDed clip on the Electoral College:
  2. Answer the following questions:
    1. How are the numbers of electors determined for each state?
    2. What is the difference between the popular vote and the electoral vote?
    3. How can a candidate win the popular vote and lose the electoral vote?
  3. Read this excerpt from the 12th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “The person having the greatest Number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed; and if no person have such majority, then from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as President, the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President. But in choosing the President, the votes shall be taken by states, the representation from each state having one vote; a quorum for this purpose shall consist of a member or members from two-thirds of the states, and a majority of all the states shall be necessary to a choice.”
  4. Answer the following questions:
    1. What happens if no candidate has a majority of electors? 
    2. How many votes does each state get?
  5. The House of Representatives decided the elections of 1800 and 1824. Then, all of Congress decided the election of 1876. 
    1. Use the Election of 1876 Worksheet to read more about this election and to answer questions.
  6. Election of 2000:
    1. Use the Election of 2000 Worksheet to read more about the case and to answer questions. 
  7. Election of 2020:
    1. Read these articles about the 2020 election:
      1. Biden assembles legal team ahead of potential court challenges after 2020 election
      2. This Is Democrats’ Doomsday Scenario for Election Night
    2. What were some of the issues that made the 2020 presidential election a contested election?
    3. How did the Election of 2020 wind up in some state courts?
    4. Did the Election of 2020 wind up in the House of Representatives?
    5. Do you think there were any ways to have prevented the 2020 election from being contested? If so, what?

Stephanie Schragger teaches American and world history at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn. Stephanie has an A.B. in History from Princeton University and a M.A. in History from Yale University.