Premise: The 2016 election on November 8 2016 is what I call the “Trifecta Political Game.” Voters will determine not only the President and Vice-President for the next four years, but also 34 Senators, the entire House of Representatives, and numerous State and Local officials from Governors to judges, et al. Each branch of the government will be affected by the outcome of this contest. The president must nominate a justice to the Supreme Court, appoint his entire Cabinet, every Ambassador to every nation, and that is just the tip of the iceberg of powers and duties. I hesitate to call it a race, since that reminds me of a combination of NASCAR, the Triple Crown, and so many other competitions in which the fastest, if not the most talented participant wins. And although the Electoral College legitimizes the candidate with 270+ electoral votes, this process is the embodiment of the democratic process in the United States. At all levels, from Kindergarten to College and beyond, the public has weighed, measured, and surely at times doubted the candidates. And the victor is then given the unimaginable responsibility of leading our nation into the future. It has always been thus. But in our nation’s classrooms this particular year will surely be the foundation for many future voters and their understanding of the electoral process. That is the domain of the social studies teachers. Whether you are a seasoned veteran or a novice there are some major themes that ought to be included in a unit on teaching about presidential campaigns, the voters themselves, and the factors that contribute to this historic decision. I’ll propose my favorite outline, and then let you decide which parts you have the time to include in your own lesson.
Step One: Design your Unit
Each of us has our own state and local curriculum. We also can use the Common Core. Whatever your teaching goals and objectives may be, some essentials must be included in your Election Unit. My concept has always been the “Candidate School.” Model. In a candidate school, the students put themselves into the shoes of the individual seeking nomination and election. The students should take part in as many of the election steps as they can.
Start with Step 1 – Announcing your candidacy. Candidates must decide why they think they could handle the job. Having an impressive resume helps. In 2016, student groups can “vet” the candidates, and compare their resumes. Candidates must also have a Vision for the Future.
Step 2 – After determining that you have sufficient name recognition, the candidate must seek
the endorsement of the party. In our two party system that is primarily the Democratic or
Republican Party. Many independents have attempted to capture the White House on their own.
That topic of the role of third party candidates is an important subject that can be discussed as
appropriate. The role of the party is to publicize the candidate and endorse them by helping to
nominate them via the primaries and caucuses. Students, especially the Seniors ready to step
onto the political stage, have watched this occur over the last 12 months. It has been quite a
spectacle, but at this point the field has been winnowed down, and the frontrunners and their vice
presidential pics are heavily into the process.
Step 3 – Get on the Ballot. The student must understand that the race for the white house is
actually a set of 50 separate elections that will ultimately culminate in the indirect election of the
President by the Electoral College. The constitution gives the states the power to conduct
elections. That includes setting up the Congressional Districts, the local precincts, the voter
registration requirements and deadlines, and the more recently contested requirement that voters
must present a “valid” ID in order to vote. Other topics in this step might include issues such as
restoration of voting rights to felons after incarceration ends, and a myriad of voting
irregularities that plagued past elections. The 2000 election is an important case in point. The
states count their ballots as well. So guaranteeing that voting as a civil right is protected by the
states comes under the purview of the national courts, in some instances. Assign how the voting
rights act impacts the election to those students who want to do some advanced research.
Step 4 – Fundraising. This is tons of fun to study. Where does the money come from? Do
candidates raise money by holding rallies? How do the candidates pay for all those slick TV
ads, or run their websites, or pay for their campaign managers, local offices and coordinate their
volunteers? Many websites track this process. My unit title for this is “Show me the Money!!”
Step 5 – Research the Issues. This ought to be an essential component of any electoral lesson.
Use age-appropriate resources to help students study the issues that most interest them wherever
they live, and for whatever ideology they have already embraced. Hot topics in 2016 are guns,
immigration, terrorism, and gender issues. I would make a list of “go to” sites, as well as “no
go” sites for the students. The very bravest teachers will allow students to create their own
political ads. They should be judged on their content as well as style. Include Political Cartoons
to spice up the lesson and make learning fun.
Step 6 – Analyze the Polls. Students should be introduced to the process of collecting people’s
opinions and then being able to tell how people might vote, based on their political values. Once
again, this must be age-appropriate, so don’t use the same sites for elementary students as you
use for the high school cohort.
Step 7 – Get out the Vote. Students often relate to this, as they have observed the ads, the
signage, and listened to the televised debates between the two frontrunners. Most have visited
the candidates official websites (or they should before the unit is done) as well as many other
venues that try to attract the Youth Vote. I am sure that Stephen Colbert or SNL skits are
tempting to watch for adults as well as students. Caution: Be sure the students understand that
Campaigning is not a game, and that the outcome has consequences for the nation. Each party
makes every effort to contact the voter to be sure they remember to vote for their candidate!
Step 8 – Promote the Vote! The most effective teaching tool in this unit is to conduct a
schoolwide mock election. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of this activity. While the
students are in high school, they will get only ONE chance to take part in this event. Whether
students are freshmen and just getting introduced to the school climate, or Seniors who have
been around for four years, each class can benefit from the public service announcements, signs,
and hype that surrounds a student led school-wide activity. Their votes matter – not just in the
schools but in the community. It doesn’t take much class time to raise awareness and get
students to volunteer to take part. Stickers go a long way toward sending a signal to young
citizens that I Voted means something. Every vote counts. And the students have so much
creative talent just waiting to be put to use. Our local registrar is a wonderful resource, and they
provide onsite voter registration for the actual election and materials for the school mock election
This lesson can be so dynamic. I will list some sites I always use that can be helpful, but as with
any written document, the minute a list gets published it becomes relatively obsolete. So –
custom design your lesson to your own classrooms, your own students and your own
communities. You will be astonished – and proud – of the work that our young citizens can
produce – if only they are given the essential How To lesson. And don’t forget to call your local
paper and TV station, for even more excitement. Let’s Rock the Vote in Virginia – and then
watch as the returns pour in. To the Future!!
Resources for teachers and students:
http://www.youthleadership.net/ includes lesson plans and online mock election directions
http://www.realclearpolitics.com/ includes polls and data info
http://www.270towin.com/ includes interactive map and previous electoral results
http://www.followthemoney.org/ helpful to research how money enters the process
http://www.census.gov/ helpful for Quickfacts and demographics by Congressional District
Your own local and national broadcast news sources, including PBS
Your own State Board of Election helpful for access to election results from past elections.
Each of the candidates’ websites