An election year provides the perfect opportunity for teachers to incorporate civics into the curriculum. Through the election process, teachers can implement citizenship lessons and at the same time provide a model for the democratic system in the classroom. Although these lessons can be taught anytime, I believe they work best in an election year—whether it be the year of a presidential, congressional, or even school district election. The culminating activity allows teachers to parallel the election process with the election of class officers.
The book I recommend to accompany the lessons, The Kid Who Ran for President (Gutman, 1996), creates the illusion that it might be possible for an ordinary kid to become president. In the book, Judson is elected president but realizes that he is not the right “man” for the job, so he resigns. Aside from its comical aspect, the book is informational, presents the steps to the presidency, and ties in well with the daily lessons. Read chapters together throughout the unit. Point out to students the age of the main character. Ask students: Would you vote for a twelve-year-old to become president? Why or why not?
Who Can Vote?
Discuss the history of the right to vote with your students. Our Founding Fathers intended that only white male property owners should vote for president. Barriers that kept Americans from voting included: poll taxes, literacy tests, sex discrimination, race, and age discrimination. After the Civil War, the 15th Amendment in 1870 gave blacks the vote. But in many places, this was not upheld until Congress passed the 1965 Voting Rights Act giving minority voters full protection. The 19th Amendment in 1920 gave women the right to vote. Native Americans could vote after 1961. The voting age was 21 until 1971 when it was lowered to eighteen (because of the Vietnam War).
Ask students: Should former prisoners be allowed to vote? Should the voting age be lowered to sixteen? Or fourteen? (Many teens work and pay taxes.) What are some reasons that people don’t vote? (Not enough time, believe their vote won’t make a difference, never registered, don’t know candidates.) Discuss the voter registration requirements in your area. Have each student fill out a voter registration form. Get a local election map from your city hall and discuss how the map is divided into voting regions. Determine where, according to the map, students would vote.
What are Political Parties?
Introduce the Republican (elephant) and Democratic (donkey) parties and their symbols created by cartoonist Thomas Nast. Introduce students to other political parties and discuss what those parties stand for: Liberty—anti-slavery; Know Nothing—supported deportation of foreign beggars and criminals; Prohibition—anti-liquor; Bull Moose—free trade; States’ Rights—less federal power, continued segregation; Green— environmentalism and social justice.
Discuss the issues that candidates take a stand for and against. What promises are the candidates making? Concerned citizens often write letters to the newspaper. Have students check the “Letters to the Editor” section for opinions on controversial issues. Have students conduct a debate on important issues such as school prayer, crime, taxes, health care, or gun control. Create a ballot and have students vote on the issues. Graph the results. Have the students conduct the ballot in another classroom in a different grade level and compare the results. Do students of different grade levels agree on important issues? If the vote were taken in another school district or another state, would the results be the same?
Have students look up political terms in the dictionary or place the words in alphabetical order. This would be a good opportunity to use the newspaper and have students search for terms: ballot, caucus, conservative, liberal, dark horse, incumbent, inauguration, straw vote, platform, primary.
What is the Electoral College?
The Electoral College was assigned to keep one large state from dictating the selection of a president. The Electoral College is based on congressional representation, so states with larger populations get more electoral votes. The College members meet in their respective state capitals on January 6, following a presidential election, to decide who will be the next president. We vote for electors who vote for the president. The presidential candidate who wins the popular vote in a state wins all the votes of the state’s electors. The new president needs 270 electoral votes to win. Every ten years a census is taken to determine the population of each state. If a state’s population has decreased, it might lose electoral votes. During the election campaign for class officers, take a vote by popularity, then by state electoral votes. Compare the results. Discuss how President Bush won the presidency in 2000 with 271 electoral votes, just one more than he needed, although he lost the popular vote by half a million. Should the presidency be determined by popular vote or by electoral vote? What about our class president?
What Does it Cost to Run for an Election?
Point out to students that campaigning is expensive. Candidates and their staff have to travel, newspaper ads have to be created and placed, buttons and posters have to be printed and distributed, mailings have to be sent out to thousands of people, and offices have to be staffed and paid for. The biggest single campaign expense is television time. Ask students the following questions: What do you think would happen if there were no campaigns? Do you think voters would be affected? Is it important to follow campaigns? Have campaigns changed over the years? How has technology helped candidates? Place students in groups and give them this scenario: You have been given $500,000 to buy promotional items for your campaign. You will need to decide which items you will purchase, how many items you will need, and how you will distribute the items. You must design your own products and include an original slogan and picture to represent your campaign. Create a chart depicting typical campaign costs, such as $100,000 to run a television commercial for one month, $250 for 500 buttons, $400 for 1000 bumper stickers, $1000 per day for a half-page newspaper ad, $260 for 1000 magnets, $10 for 100 pencils, etc. for students to use as their model.
Electing Class Officers
Ask students to think about qualities of good leaders and who in the class would make good officers. Have students create a written job description detailing characteristics or requirements for the perfect president. Simulate a mock campaign with students. Have each party hold a mini convention and nominate a candidate for class president. Let the nominated candidate choose a running mate. The candidates must campaign for office, create a slogan or song, and create posters. Schedule a press conference and have students play the role of the press, the audience, the moderator, and the candidates. Schedule a debate before the election. Assign each student a state and the electoral votes for that state. During the election, post both the popular and the electoral vote count. The winning team will choose the class secretary and treasurer. Post responsibilities of the officers: Class President (check attendance, take absentee information to office, monitor room when teacher is out, help plan class parties); Class Vice President (check homework, pass out papers, help plan class parties, take over if President is absent); Class Secretary (manage conduct clipboard, close door and turn out lights when class leaves, help plan class parties, take over if Vice President is absent); Class Treasurer (take money to office, keep calendar current, help plan class parties, take over when Secretary is absent).
These lessons and culminating activity on the election process teach students about political parties and campaigns, about how citizens can shape politics, about the powers of local, state, and national governments, and about the rights and responsibilities of citizens. Class officers can handle many of the daily tasks of a teacher, such as checking attendance or checking homework. The teacher is then able to spend more time on planning and implementing instruction. Through their involvement in the election process, students will make steps to become informed and active citizens and participate in the decision-making process afforded every democratic citizen.
Storypath: Elections can enhance student civic skills through simulation learning
Kay Gandy is a retired professor of seventeen years and a retired elementary teacher of twenty-seven years. Her goal is to work with teachers in countries around the world and watch movies in foreign theaters. Her books Mapping is Elementary, My Dear and 50 Ways to Teach Social Studies provide practical lesson ideas for elementary teachers.