Fifty-One Presidential Elections On Tuesday

The United States electoral system is complex and sometimes hard to understand. Under the United States Constitution, there will be fifty-one separate elections for President in each of the fifty states plus Washington DC on Tuesday, not one. In the next few days, we only have Thursday, Friday, and Monday left, teachers will have to prepare students for November 9th, the day after. There will be puzzled and upset children (and some teachers) in the classroom on Wednesday, whatever the final outcome. And in an election this close with an electorate this divided, there might not even be a clear outcome. In the 1800, 1824, 1876, and 2000, Congress and the Courts had to decide who was elected.

Under the Electoral College system, each state is assigned points or electoral votes based roughly on population and equal to their number of Congressional representatives and Senators. California has the most points, fifty-five. Montana, Wyoming, Vermont, and Alaska have only three. Washington DC is also assigned three points. At the end of the night we tally the number of points candidates won in each of the separate state votes to determine who is the President-Elect. The winning candidate will need 270 electoral votes, no matter how many of the state races they win.

State representatives "elected" to the Electoral College do not actually confirm Tuesday's winner until December 19, 2016, which leaves more than a month for legal appeals if the vote is close. Congress will then meet January 6, 2017 in a joint session to count the final "electoral votes." On January 20, 2017, the next President will be inaugurated into office.

The most recent ABC/Washington Post national poll showed Donald Trump with a very, very, slight popular vote lead but still trailing in potential Electoral College votes. We are looking at a very tight final vote on Tuesday where no candidate has a majority of the popular vote and the candidate with the higher vote total may not be elected. Most recently this happened in 2000 when Democrat Al Gore had more popular votes but Republican George W. Bush had more electoral votes and became President.

Despite all the recent election upheaval, based on composite state and national polls, on November 1 the New York Times Upshot election model still predicted that Hillary Clinton would win the Presidential election. While a victory by Donald Trump remained possible, the Upshot said Clinton had an 88% chance of being elected. The Upshot put Clinton's chance of losing as "about the same as the probability that an NFL kicker misses a 35-yard field goal." It predicted that among the contested swing states, Clinton would win Nevada, Florida, and North Carolina for 50 electoral votes and a national total of 322. Trump would win Ohio and Iowa giving him 24 electoral votes in these states and a national total of 216. Huffington Post puts Clintons chances of being elected at almost 98% with 340 electoral votes to only 198 for Donald Trump. The big difference is that Huffington Post predicts Clinton will take Ohio's 18 electoral votes. A less favorable poll for the Democrats still shows Clinton being elected by 288 to 250 electoral votes.

The New York Times Upshot also predicts the Democrats have a 60% chance of winning a Senate majority. Forty-seven Democrats and 47 Republicans are rated as strong favorites to hold or win seats. In addition, the Upshot predicts Democratic victories in Indiana, New Hampshire, and Nevada, which would give them a slim 51-seat majority. North Carolina and Missouri are seen as leaning Republican but the Democratic candidates are still in play. Huffington Post is also predicting a narrow Democratic Senate majority. However, other polls predict a slight Republican majority in the new Senate, so which party will win a majority of the seats remains in question.

The United States House of Representatives has 435 seats, so 218 makes up a majority. Currently the Republicans hold 246 seats. They are expected to have a slightly smaller majority with between 225 and 230 seats in the next Congress.

If poll numbers are accurate, we are looking at a nation deeply divided by race, class, gender, and ideology and continuing stalemate in Washington. We can expect angry and threatening responses to the vote and charges that democracy has failed. Teachers are going to have to be calm, strong, and insist on respectful discourse in classrooms as they join with students and try to make sense of what is happening in the United States.

Lesson Plans for teaching about the Electoral College are available at C-SPAN, CNN, iCivics, Gilder Lehrman, Scholastic, and TED Ed (which includes a video).

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