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ONN 5 – EL
Key Takeaway: This lesson will explore aspects of electoral process that many perceive as
challenges to the vitality and health of our democracy. Through a greater understanding of the
mechanics of our political system, students will be able to recognize and appreciate the role they
can play in improving it.

Lesson Structure:
1. Begin the class by watching the chapter Election Process [15 minutes]
2. Initial Discussion on student reactions to the film (details below) [10 minutes]
3. Classroom activity: Three Challenges to our Democracy [15 minutes]
4. Assignment: Reforming the System [5 minutes]

Initial Discussion: After watching the Election Process section of the film, give students the
opportunity to share their reactions. The film cites that candidates are ‘branded’ in elections today
in way that is historically unprecedented. Through group discussion, list the reasons why this
change has taken place about. Consider the following in your debate –

 Societal changes – How are we different than generations past/

 Technological advances – Why do the technologies we have today lend themselves to
this method of presentation – style over substance
 Changes in the consumer marketplace – What is different about the marketplace in this
era compared to eras past that favor this style of political communication?
 Changes in the media – How has the media changed over time and how has this
impacted the branding phenomenon?

What are the most important elements from a strategic perspective when developing a candidate’s
brand? List the factors in descending order of importance.

Now turn to the current election. Through group discussion, explore both Senator Obama’s and
Senator McCain’s respective brands.

o What is the imagery associated with each candidate’s brand?

o What is the messaging associated with each candidate’s brand?
o Which issues that we face as a nation are associated with, or have been claimed, each
brand? Discuss the strategies for how this was done during the campaign.
o Consider brands you know from the marketplace –
• What brand of car would each candidate be?
• What brand of clothing?

Based on the these discussion, develop a new slogan for each campaign that would be in line with
the brand’s image and the brand’s message,


This lesson plan offers the opportunity to explore three different challenges to our democracy
posed by our electoral system. Challenge increases, or has the potential to increase, the
polarization and partisanship in our politics.

1. Negative Politics [Introductory Level]

This class activity explores the ramifications of the predominantly negative tone of
contemporary campaigns on the electorate’s civic engagement.

2. The Electoral College [Intermediate Level]

This class activity studies the impact of the electoral college system for determining
the president on the citizenry’s experience of the political process.

3. Gerrymandering [Advanced Level]

This lesson plan explores the impact gerrymandering – the drawing of county lines to
strengthen a political party’s chance of winning elections – on our political process and civic

The politics of negative attacks has been prevalent since the nations founding. Offer the class the
following two examples from one of the first elections and one of the most recent –

 In the election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson ran against the Federalist incumbent John
Adams. Jefferson was accused by the Federalists of being ‘an infidel’. So effective
was this smear campaign that many New Englanders actually hid their family
Bibles at the bottom of wells, for fear that Jefferson, if elected, would order them
confiscated. Far from being an atheist, however, Jefferson was in fact an
Episcopalian who made a collection of his favorite quotations from scripture which
became known as “Jefferson’s Bible”.
 In 2000, John McCain was accused of having fathered “an illegitimate black child.”
This accusation was a primary cause of his losing the South Carolina Primary. In
reality, McCain didn’t father an illegitimate child – the child in questions was
widely known to be an adopted child that he and his wife found in an orphanage in

Discussion Questions

o Why do we see more attack ads than positive campaign ads?

o Discuss how and why attack ads are effective
o What are three empirical differences between the two?
o What are the consequences of this negative tone in politics on -
• engaged citizens
• citizens considering running for office

Now consider the role of negative advertising & destructive allegations in the current election

For both candidates, cite an example of either a negative campaign ad or an allegation similar to
the smear campaigns listed above. In group discussion, answer the following questions for each –

o What are the allegations in the ad?

o Is there any truth to the ad? Where does the advertisement deviate from this truth?
o How does the language serve to mislead? Is it unique or building on a previously
disseminated misconception or untruth?
o Has this had an impact on how the candidate is viewed in your community? Did it achieve the
desired effect of discrediting/undermining the candidates reputation and qualifications?
o How did the candidate that was attacked respond to the allegation?
o Do you believe this will ultimately affect the outcome of the election?


Present the class with the following details of the Electoral College’s functioning –

 Winner not determined by popular vote.

 In the Electoral College, voters choose electors, who in turn elect the President.

 Each state is allocated a different number of electors based on its population. (For
example, California has 54 electoral votes, Massachusetts has 12, and Wyoming has 3.

 Whoever wins a given state wins all the electoral votes of that state.

 In order to win the election, a candidate must receive the majority of Electoral College
votes – this does not always correspond to the winner of the popular vote.

Discussion Questions

o What are the advantages and disadvantages of the Electoral College in terms of –
 states with large populations
 states with small populations
 swing states
 uncontested states

o Does the Electoral College contribute to our divide politics or does it help bring us
together? What is the effect on our national discourse when the election devolves
into a fierce debate in a small handful of relatively moderate states?
o One recommendation is to eliminate the Electoral College in favor of a national
popular vote, in which the candidate receiving the most votes wins. The advantages
of this alternative are obvious – every vote would count equally, and no state would
be favored over others.
o What would be the disadvantages?
o What are the advantages to keeping the system as it is now?
o What possible alternatives are there for a more equitable method of electing the

Gerrymandering describes the deliberate rearrangement
(redrawing) of the boundaries of congressional districts to
influence the outcome of elections. Through group discussion,
have the class determine the two strategic outcomes for this –

1. concentrating minority votes into a few districts to gain

more seats for the majority in surrounding districts –
this strategy is known as packing In 1812, Jeffersonian Republicans forced
through the Massachusetts legislature a bill
2. diffusing minority strength across many districts - this rearranging district lines to assure them an
strategy is known as dilution advantage in the upcoming senatorial
elections. A Federalist newspaper editor,
comparing it the new district lines to a
salamander, dubbed it “Gerrymander."

Now consider the implications of gerrymandering on the national political process. Present the
following flow chart -

The partisan population seeks

That When the partisan elected official
A a candidate representing their
partisan goes to Washington and forms a
district beliefs and ideas with no
is highly  incentive for the candidate to  candidate  coalition with other similarly
wins elected officials, the coalition as
partisan consider the other side of the
election a whole becomes partisan
political aisle

Discussion Questions

o Consider the flow chart above. Does a moderate candidate ever have a legitimate opportunity
to win elected office in a Gerrymandered district? Under what circumstances?
o What are the outcomes of gerrymandering in terms of incumbency re-election?
o What are the implications of this? Cite three positive and negative consequences of having
many of the same leaders staying in power year after year.


Explore one of the following reforms to our electoral system. The findings could culminate in a
paper or oral presentation.

• Campaign Finance Reform

• National Popular Vote
• Instant Runoff Voting
• Recall Elections
• Absentee and Provisional Ballots

o Topics to explore include:

• What are the most significant differences between the proposed reform and the
current system?
o List and describe its specific advantages
o List and describe its specific disadvantages
• Who are the strongest proponents of the proposed reform?
• Who are the strongest opponents of the proposed reform?
• When was it initially proposed? What campaigns have been waged to realize its
• What has been the electorate’s response to the effort?
• What has been the response of politicians to the effort?