After the 2012 Election: Does our System Need Reforming?

Students discuss two related issues and their impact on voters: the election's focus on ""swing states"" and the winner-take-all Electoral College system. Students discuss these issues and then take part in a roleplay to deepen their understanding.

To the teacher:

The 2012 presidential campaign has raised many issues about the U.S. system of voting. In this lesson students will discuss two related issues: the election's focus on "swing states" and the impact on voters of the winner-take-all electoral system. Students will discuss these issues and take part in a roleplay to deepen their understanding.

 Swing State or Safe State?

 Ask students:

  • Do we live in a "swing state" or a "safe state"?  Work with students to define these terms.  (A swing state is one where both Democratic and Republican candidates have a good chance of winning; a safe state is one where either the Democrat or the Republican is very likely to win.  These states are often referred to as either "blue states" in which the majority is likely to vote Democratic or "red states" in which the majority is likely to vote Republican.)
  • What were some of the swing states in the 2012 election? (They included Ohio, Florida, Colorado, Nevada, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia, and Wisconsin. For a map, see
  • How was the 2012 presidential election different for voters in swing states, compared to voters in safe states?  (Among the differences: Romney and Obama spent much more time in the swing states, and voters heard and saw many more campaign ads.)
  • What impact do I think this had on voters?

Read or ask a student to read this quote from a voter in the "safe" red state of Kentucky.
"I don't know why I bother to go and vote because I live in Kentucky and it's already decided. My vote for President Obama won't count.  I envy the swing states, they get lots of candidate face time while the rest of us can just stand on the sidelines and watch. People I talk to here, especially other Democrats, say the same thing: why vote at all? I will vote in the upcoming election because I always vote but unfortunately my vote won't count and I might just write in ‘ham sandwich.'  What is so wrong about the one person, one vote concept? Why can't EVERYONE'S vote count? Isn't that what a democracy is all about?"

Now read or ask a student to read this quote from a voter in the "swing" state of Ohio.

"I voted this morning. In Ohio.  A friend of mine from another state commented to me recently that my vote ‘really counted' because of where I lived. Believe me, we have been surrounded by political rhetoric here unlike anywhere else I have ever lived through. From multiple daily phone calls to mailings, countless yard signs and near weekly rallies with presidential candidates in attendance, there is an energy and intensity here about this election that is palpable. We feel the pressure."

Ask students:

  • Do you share the feelings of either one of these voters?
  • Have you heard friends or family members express any of these views?


The Electoral College

Ask students if they know what the "Electoral College" is. 
Elicit or explain that it is the institution that officially elects the president and vice president of the United States every four years. The "college" is made up of electors from each state.  Each state is assigned a certain number of electors based on the total number of U.S. representatives from that state (which is based on the state's population size) plus the number of senators it has (all states have two). In the general election, whichever candidate gets more votes in a particular state (even if it's just 51%), wins all of that state's electoral votes. That is, the elections in each state are winner-take-all, not one-person, one vote. 
Show the TED Ed video clip "Does My Vote Count: The Electoral College Explained" by Christina Greer to explain and/or reiterate the concepts you just discussed: 
Ask students:

  • What are your thoughts about a race that is determined by an Electoral College rather than by popular vote?
  • What are arguments for having an Electoral College decide the presidency?
  • What are arguments for having a popular vote decide the presidency?
  • How does the electoral college system contribute to the swing state vs. safe state difference?

Roleplay: Florida Voter

In this activity students will experience how the Electoral College is working in the swing state of Florida, where votes were still being counted days after the November 6, 2012 election. Explain that Florida has 29 electoral votes.  The margin between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney was very tight.

Provide each of your students with a profile (see below, or download this pdf).  There are profiles for 32 students.  29 profiles are of voters who voted for either Governor Romney or President Obama, and 3 profiles are of Floridians who chose not to vote on Election Day.

Write the names of Governor Romney and President Obama on the board.  Ask students to stand up as they read out their profiles, randomly.  Like the television stations do on election night, tally the votes as they "come in."  At the end of the activity, you will have 15 votes for President Obama and 14 votes for Governor Romney. 

  • Ask students, staying in character, how they feel about the process so far. 

Reiterate as we saw and discussed earlier in the lesson, that the U.S. president is elected through the electoral system. This means that when the vote is 15 to 14 as it is in this situation, all 29 votes go to President Obama. 

  • Ask those who voted for Governor Romney how they feel about all 29 electoral votes going to President Obama.

Explain that when the vote is this close in several swing states, especially the larger ones, it becomes possible that a candidate wins the presidency through the electoral vote without winning the popular vote - the total number of votes cast throughout the country.  

  • Ask students (still in character) for their reactions.



Read this excerpt from President Obama's victory speech:  

"I want to thank every American who participated in this election, whether you voted for the very first time or waited in line for a very long time ... Whether you pounded the pavement or picked up the phone, whether you held an Obama sign or a Romney sign, you made your voice heard and you made a difference...
I believe we can seize this future together because we are not as divided as our politics suggest. We're not as cynical as the pundits believe. We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions, and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are and forever will be the United States of America."

Ask some volunteers, in the role of their Floridian voter character from before, to share their thoughts about this part of President Obama's victory speech.
If there's time, ask students to drop their characters, and share their thoughts about the role play:

  • Did they understand their character's views?  
  • Did they relate to their character's views?  Why?  Why not?


Homework assignment

For homework, ask students to find out about proposals to reform our electoral system to address some of the problems we have discussed. Alternatively, you might assign students to read this article in The Nation.  

In the next day's class, ask students to share what they learned and what if anything they think should be changed about our electoral system.


Profiles of voters who voted for President Obama (15)

I am a Dominican immigrant, happy about Obama's support for immigration reform earlier in the year.  I am very upset about the way Mitt Romney keeps using the word "illegals" to refer to some of my neighbors and friends and am concerned about his idea of self-deportation.  I voted for President Obama.

I am a single mom.  I've worked hard my whole life and have fought for equal rights for women.  Mr. Obama signing the Lilly Ledbetter Family Pay Act in 2009 was very important to me and my family.  I don't like that Romney hasn't come out to support equal pay for equal work. I voted for President Obama.

I believe that health care is a human right.  I don't think that Obama's healthcare plan went far enough in that it doesn't cover all Americans. Romney's threat to repeal "Obamacare," however, would turn back the clock even further.  I voted for President Obama.

I see Mitt Romney as an out-of-touch, stiff, insensitive and uncaring rich businessman.  Obama understands the middle class. He knows what it's like to struggle.  He's willing to fight for the lower and middle classes.  I voted for President Obama.

I believe Mitt Romney isn't principled.  He will say whatever it takes to win the presidency, and I'm not sure where he stands on the issues because he has changed his tune so many times.  Even his campaign manager at one point talked about the candidate's etch-a-sketch moment.  Obama comes across as more principled, as far as politicians go.  I voted for President Obama.

Unemployment is high and the economy is recovering only very slowly.  I believe that President Obama has been trying hard to change this, but has encountered a lot of opposition in Congress.  This has made his job more challenging.  I want him to have four more years so that he can finish the job he started.  I voted for President Obama.

I've worked hard my whole life.  I am a multi-millionaire with a lot of investments.  My tax rate is lower than that of my secretary.  That doesn't seem fair.  I believe that the wealthy should pay their fair share in taxes. I support President Obama in either letting the Bush tax cuts expire or introducing higher taxes for the wealthiest Americans. I voted for President Obama.

I'm a Catholic nun.  I look at Paul Ryan's budget, which when implemented would cut benefits for women, infants, and children.  This is not a pro-life stance as far as I'm concerned.  I believe in economic justice and a society that takes cam of those in need.  I voted for President Obama.

I lost power in Hurricane Sandy and have been staying with friends for over a week now.  It reminds me of the importance of government agencies like FEMA in emergency situations such as these; agencies Romney wants to cut.  I was already leaning towards voting for Obama.  The fact that he put his campaign on hold to tend to this crisis was important to me. He stepped up as the kind of leader that deserves my vote.  I voted for President Obama.

Romney believes in a smaller government.  He wants to reduce the size and cost of government by limiting Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare.  By lowering taxes he claims that individuals will be left with more money to pay for their healthcare needs themselves.  This may work for the wealthy but I'm concerned that the poor and middle class will not be able to afford the care they need in Romney's system.  I voted for President Obama.

Romney says he's going to reduce the deficit, which I think is important.  Yet, Romney also wants to expand military spending to ensure America's safety in the world.  I don't think these add up.  Though I'm not thrilled with Obama's government spending policies, I've decided to go with the "devil I know" rather than taking a gamble on Romney, who has not provided me with enough detail to convince me he'll be fiscally responsible.  I voted for President Obama.

I believe President Obama's life has made him sensitive to the needs and struggles of lower and middle class Americans, unlike Romney who lives a privileged life and appears to be out of touch with the majority of Americans.  As a result I believe President Obama is more likely to fight for me and my needs than Mitt Romney.  I voted for President Obama.

I'm a college student.  I worked on Obama's campaign in 2008.  I'm disappointed because he didn't bring change to Washington like he promised.  I'm willing to cut him some slack because I believe the Republicans in Congress didn't want to work with him and he did increase Pell Grants.  I'll have to see if in his second term he'll deliver on his promises or if he's just another politician.  I voted for President Obama.

My father was killed in the attacks on the twin towers on 9/11.  I've had nightmares about it for years and a pit in my stomach knowing that Osama bin Laden, the Al Qaida leader behind the attacks, was still out there.  When President Obama announced last year that he had given successful orders to kill bin Laden, I felt a sense of relief.  I voted for President Obama.

I am Cuban American and my community has traditionally voted Republican.  I'm concerned however about the Tea Party's influence on the Republican Party these days and have my questions about Mitt Romney being able to resist some of the more radical right-wing elements of that movement.  I find President Obama is not as left wing as people make him out to be and the economy does seem to be growing.  I voted for President Obama.

I'm a libertarian.  I know the libertarian candidate has no chance of winning the election and I want my vote to go to someone who has a chance.  Mitt Romney claims he wants a smaller government, yet he wants to expand military spending, have the government decide on women's reproductive rights and endorses invasive physical procedures for women who want an abortion.  Mitt Romney is too much of a contradiction for me.  I voted for President Obama.


Voters who voted for Governor Romney (14)

I believe the American economy is in desperate need of a fix.  Mitt Romney has made his career in the private sector turning around failing business and enterprises.  I believe he's the man to turn around the failing American economy.  I voted for Governor Romney.

I've worked hard my whole life.  I am a multi-millionaire with a lot of investments.  Why should I be taxed at a higher rate than anyone else?  That doesn't seem very American.  I voted for Governor Romney.

With his business experience, Romney will be able to close the budget deficit, I believe.  President Obama is only burdening our children and grandchildren with more debt.  I voted for Governor Romney.

The Obama government didn't take the warnings leading up to the attacks on the American Consulate in Bengazi, Libya, seriously and then lied about what actually happened when asked about it afterwards.  I'm not comfortable with how the President handles emergency situations such as these.  I think Mitt Romney will do a better job.  I voted for Governor Romney.

Taxing the rich won't close the budget deficit.  It just seems like a gimmick that Obama wants to introduce while avoiding the more important concern, that we're spending beyond our means when it comes to entitlements like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, federal employee and military unemployment compensation, food stamps, and farmer subsidies.  This President is in over his head.  I voted for Governor Romney.

My religion is important to me and I believe strongly that life begins at conception.  I applauded Romney's Vice Presidential pick of Paul Ryan who is one of the most vocal pro-life advocates in Congress.  President Obama's stand on abortion and a woman's right to choose is offensive to me.  I voted for Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan.

Romney likes to say, "compassion isn't measured by welfare or food stamps, but by the ability to lift people off welfare and food stamps." Each year Mitt Romney gives millions of his own money to help people in this way.  He's the kind of compassionate conservative I want in office.  I voted for Governor Romney.

Romney promises to break the bipartisan deadlock in Washington.  He will work across the aisle to get things done, something President Obama has not been able to do, despite his promises four years ago.  I voted for Governor Romney.

Romney believes in a smaller government.  He wants to reduce the size and cost of government by turning over choice and responsibility to individual Americans.  Romney's plan will reduce regulations and taxes, putting money back in the pockets of citizens who can use it pay for their own needs.  I voted for Governor Romney.

I've been out of full-time work for three years now.  I voted for President Obama last time.  I liked his message of change, but don't think he has delivered.  I'm disappointed and angry.  It's time to give the other guy a chance.  I voted for Governor Romney.

My friends tell me that Romney worries them because of his conservative statements against abortion, gay marriage, healthcare, and global warming.  I believe that he's done this to cater to early state primary voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, but doesn't really mean it.  His primary concern is the economy and that's what I'm interested in.  I believe Romney has what it takes to turn the economy around.  I voted for Governor Romney.

I'm a small business owner.  I trust that Romney will lower my costs, especially where healthcare is concerned.  I also expect him to get banks lending again.  I feel President Barack Obama has done little to help me over the past four years.  I voted for Governor Romney.

I'm concerned about American reliance on foreign oil because it affects our national security and contributes to our national debt.  I like the fact that the centerpiece of the Romney/Ryan economic plan is energy independence.  In the second presidential debate Romney specified that he'd do this through "more drilling, more permits and licenses."  I support this kind of action.  I voted for Governor Romney.

I consider myself to be socially liberal and fiscally conservative, so the Romney/Ryan ticket is problematic for me on many levels.  My biggest concern, however, is the economy, since my friends and I will soon graduate from college into an extremely tight job market.  I voted for Mitt Romney.


Floridians who didn't vote (3)

I voted for President Obama in 2008.  He has disappointed me on so many levels that I can't bring myself to vote for him again.  I'm a left leaning Democrat so Romney will never be an option.  I didn't vote on November 6.

I am so tired of the negative campaigning that both parties have engaged in, that I've turned away from politics altogether.  I'm through with politicians and their lies and am just glad things are over.  I didn't vote on November 6.

I believe that it doesn't matter who gets elected president.  Obama, Romney, they're basically one and the same.  I didn't vote on November 6.