Why Is California So Important
Unit: Getting into the Electoral College
6th to 8th
Who elects the president of the United States?
[The Electoral College, not the general voting public.]
Describe the mechanics of the Electoral College to students. If time
permits, you can also have students research how the electoral college
works. Many resources are available online.
Tell students how many electoral votes their state has. Ask them
whether it seems like a lot or a little. Discuss what they've learned
to get them excited for the upcoming lesson. Tell students that they
are going to be gathering data about the number of electoral college
votes in each state and discovering interesting facts. By the end of
the lesson, they will know if their state has many or few electors, and
what that means to a candidate running a presidential campaign.
To get students started on the activity, distribute the Why California? Activity Sheet. The first task is to complete the table in Question 1.
Have pairs of students collect the data. Or, to save time, divide the
table into sections of 5–10 states, and assign a small group of
students to each section.
Why California? Activity Sheet
If using computers with Internet access:
There are many websites that provide the most current census data on population and the number of electoral votes for each state.
If computers are available, but not an Internet connection:
Have students record the data in the Electoral College Spreadsheet. Then have students complete the remaining cells using
spreadsheet functions, such as sum and average. Using the sort
function, you may choose to have students sort the states by number of
electors and make observations about the data.
Electoral College Spreadsheet
Have students gather the data as a collaborative group and record it in the table. Or they could collect data on one day and complete the rest of the table on another day. You could also assign students to collect the
data at home as a family activity.
As students begin collecting the data, monitor their progress. Adding large numbers can be problematic for some
students, but it shouldn’t prevent them from completing the rest of the
This is an ideal task for the use of technology such as calculators or computer spreadsheets.
Question 2 should be completed individually to allow students
to make their own observations of the data. When you see a student
writing an observation on the activity sheet, ask them to record their responses so that they can share them with the rest of the class. Once everyone has made at least one observation, discuss the
observations as a class. Observations to look for are the great
variability in the data, the fact that each
state has a minimum of 3 electoral votes regardless of the population, and estimates of the mean of the data, since it
is a good indicator of students’ understanding of the data. Do not
share the actual mean at this time; wait for it to come up in
Questions 3 and 4 can be completed individually or in small
groups depending on your class’s level of confidence. As you circulate,
look for students using mathematical ideas, such as divisibility, to
solve Question 4. With some students, you may choose to
address the topic further. If the number is divisible by 2, does that
necessarily mean a tie is possible?
[No. There has to be a way to group the data. For
example, if there were 2 states, one with 3 votes and the other with 5,
a tie would be impossible, even though the sum is divisible by 2.]
Question 5 can be completed during the lesson or used as a take-home
assessment. While counting the number of states above and below 2% of
the electoral votes is straightforward, the mathematics of expecting 2%
to split the states might be confusing to some students. If the problem
is answered during class, take the time to discuss it with students.
Questions 6 - 8 require reflection before responding. Before performing the calculations, ask
students to estimate the median and mode and
record them in pencil. Students should have estimated the mean
previously in Question 2. Have them record their 3 estimates together.
This will reveal whether they understand the degree to which
California’s 55 electoral votes skew the mean relative to the median.
To make the calculations, have students use a spreadsheet
utility or the LIST function on a graphing calculator. If students use
a standard calculator, have them work in pairs and compare answers with
another pair before continuing. A list of 51 data points is more prone
to errors, so build in this self-checking strategy. Some students may
need to be convinced that there is only one correct answer for each
measure. Follow the calculation exercise with a discussion of the
answers. Students should recognize that the mean is higher than the
median, and the mode is the lowest possible value. Encourage students
to make generalizations about the data based on the measures of central
Introduce Question 9 with “On average, how many electoral votes
does each state have?” Students may initially struggle with this idea.
For many of them, average is only the mean. Encourage students
to come up with a reason why each of the 3 measures of central tendency
might be useful. This will give students the opportunity to explore the differences
between the mean, median, and mode. This is a difficult concept to
understand, so encourage students to explore the answers without
expecting the "right" answer.
Question 10 is a good lead-in to the remaining questions.
Students will likely be interested in discussing their state. The
median is a good measure to use since it physically divides the states
into two equal groups. Also, with the exception of California,
the states are more likely to be close to the median than to the mean
or the mode.
Question 11 is a good class discussion topic because it
addresses the key idea of the lesson, which is how influential states
with a large number of electoral votes are in a presidential election.
You may choose to enrich this question with follow-up questions such as
[A presidential candidate would have to visit the 16
states with the least electors to reach a total of 59 electors, just 4
more than California alone. For Texas, the candidate would have to
visit the 13 states with the least electors.]
[The 10 states with the most
electors, which are California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Georgia, and North Carolina are good choices. This will
come up again when students plan a campaign in Question 13, but you can
get them started early with this question.]
Question 12 is also a good assessment question because it reveals
whether students understand the importance of a state having many
electoral votes and asks students to consider their own state in the
data list. Is your state “average” or is it further from the median?
It’s important for students to understand that a state with a higher
percentage of the electoral votes is more “valuable” to a candidate.
Question 13 wraps up what students have learned during the
lesson. Ask students to write their answer in a complete paragraph,
using supporting details from the data in their writing. As you discuss
students' answers, reflect on arguments using the information from the
Why California? Answer Key
Questions for Students
1. How could the votes be split between the states to create a tie?
[There are several possible answers. For example, one
candidate wins Virginia, New Jersey, North Carolina, Michigan, Ohio,
Illinois, Pennsylvania, Florida, New York, Texas, and California, while
the other candidate wins all the other states.]
2. Why do candidates spend so much money and time in California?
[California is an outlier with respect to the number of electoral votes — it represents over 10% of the electoral college.]
3. Do the presidential candidates come to visit your state often? Why?
[Answers will vary by state. The reasons may be tied to the
electoral college, but also encourage students to consider other
factors, such as historical voting trends.]
4. Why do many states have exactly 3 electoral votes?
[This has to do with the way electors are assigned. A state
with 3 electors is a state with 2 senators and 1 representative. The
number of representatives a state has is determined by its population.
Therefore, all states with 3 electors are states with low populations.]
5. How are electoral votes related to population? Do you think this a fair system?
[This revisits the concept in the previous question, but
from the perspective of population instead of electors. The fairness of
the system is highly subjective and can be used to start an interesting
How Could That Happen?
Grade: 6th to 8th
A Swath of Red
There is a Difference: Histograms vs. Bar Graphs
Grade: 3rd to 5th, 6th to 8th
Will the Best Candidate Win?
Grade: High School