Explaining how the Electoral College works

Electoral College 2012Today we’re going to look at another topic that is often made more complex by well-intentioned graphics – the Electoral College. To be fair, there are a lot of great ideas out there that can help novices understand how the electoral college works. Let’s look at how a few graphics (and a video) attempt to educate a broad audience on this topic.

The What-If? Graphic:

via Washington Post
via Washington Post

This first graphic attempts to explain how the electoral college works but also shares a lot of additional information along the way… See the context here.

Election ballotPros – To the author’s credit, the written sentences are well constructed for the purposes of writing an article (but this isn’t an article – its a graphic!). There is one terrific image that demonstrates how electing a candidate works in this system. This ballot shows how electing a candidate translates into a how many electors will be voting on your behalf.

Cons – This graphic is an amalgamation of emotional interest tid-bits, for the most part. The subheading for How the Electoral College Works is about how “Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the election,” which is a rather distracting use of a subtitle if you’re not going to continue to discuss Al Gore’s infamous loss in 2000. I would imagine this is a hook to a more complete lesson on the Electoral College but not within a infographic in <10 size font.

Staying with this wordy column, the numbers 1 through 7 don’t exactly represent a step-by-step relationship. Some of them are just factual statements like “A candidate needs to win a majority of electoral votes – 270…” which could be stated anywhere on this graphic or turned into something more visual.

Another example of emotional interest (or seductive details that distract the reader) include the entire “Previous Close Calls” section at the bottom. This valuable space could have been used to focus on the crux of the issue – how the Electoral College works.


The “Kids” Graphic:

Electoral College for Kids
via Discover.com

This graphic is intended for kids and provides some really great information, but how long do you think it will take a kid to lose interest in this? Much faster than you think… See the context here.

Pros – Like many of the other Kids Discover infographics there are some well produced explainer graphics here. The heading is clear, the flow chart is somewhat organized, and the USA map pulls in your attention. Halfway through the flow chart there is a very good representation of what it means to vote for electors, rather than vote for the presidential candidates themselves.

Cons – The moment I saw this graphic for kids I immediately started to wonder how the text and images were pasted together. The “How it works”, “How many electors”, and “Finally” subheadings do not help organize this information very well. The most eye-catching text is actually the number 538, which is useful information but not as important as 270 – the number of electors needs to secure the win. In fact, the number of electoral votes could change depending on the state’s representation in Congress, so the most important detail would be that a “simple majority” is needed. This could be an easy-to-remember rule of thumb.

VoteThe biggest concern I have with this graphic is actually the liberal use of text around the images being used here. “Every four years, on the Tuesday following the first Monday of November, each state holds an election in which citizens vote for a ‘ticket’ that includes a president and vice president.”  What’s another way to say this…?  “Voting day” – with an image of two candidates appearing on a ticket.

Other descriptions on this graphic could be simplified as well, but I have a sneaking suspicion that there was a request to make the language grade-level appropriate. Unfortunately, that may have been implemented at the expense of some students grasping the complex topic of the Electoral College.


The Scary Pink Graphic:

via InfographicsMania.com
via InfographicsMania.com

This graphic focuses on the differences between the popular vote and the Electoral College, and whether the United States should continue to use this 18-century solution. With enough straining of the eyes you will eventually learn something from this graphic.  See the context here.

Pros – If you ignore the graphical design, font size/type and layout this infographic may teach you something about the battle between the popular vote and the electoral college.

Cons – There some good reasons I call this “The Scary Pink Graphic” – although you’d be forgiven for thinking I’m anti-pink!  For starters, the chosen fonts provide no added benefit to this infographic except for making it look somewhat classical. The heading, subheading, and section headers are challenging to read. The heading is clever because it suggests there’s a debate or some kind of court case here. But the bolded “How do Americans Feel…” question and the section headers look drab and cryptic, at best. What value do the little diagonal lines provide in the section headers anyway? One last point on fonts – the actual text used to explain what’s in the graphic is way too small, even when you zoom in at 100%.

The People versus

Under “Back to Basics…” there is an attempt to explain how the electoral college works with limited success. Step 1 is 5 pieces of paper with pencils and a box checked off in each one. This somehow represents the popular vote. Step 2 states that electors are pledged to vote for a candidate, which is clearer than if the image was left to demonstrate this point. The image in step 3 seems to be referring to two senators and… the seal of the US House of Reps, maybe? The way this is grouped also suggests that there are three state electors, which isn’t the case. This concept would need to be reworked.

Under “When popular candidates lose”, we presumably get to see who lost the presidential election even though the candidate won the popular vote. This infographic starts off with an exception – showing how Andrew Jackson won the electoral votes but still lost. This may be historically significant but it does not make the concept any clearer. In fact, it detracts from the main message of this graphic. The other three examples do show how popular candidates lose, but I fear the reader has already run away from the building screaming…

The Funny Explainer Video

While still images and videos have their own unique pros and cons, I will say that both forms of media share a lot in common. Both can explain a complex concept in delightful and meaningful ways. Both rely on a combination of imagery and text/words. Take a look at this explainer before reading my responses below:

Pros – You’ll quickly find that this explainer video has a fun tone and an informal style. The narrator keeps things moving pretty quickly but it doesn’t feel too rushed. In fact, the “stop asking so many questions” is a playful way to refocus the video without overplaying the idea that this has been “dumbed down” for you. Although it’s simple, it’s still content-rich.

Luckily, this video allows for the deletion of a lot of text that might otherwise be on the screen. This is the Modality Effect in action – it’s better to learn from graphics and narration, than from graphics/animation with text on the screen. Two modalities (visual and auditory) are being maximized here rather than forcing your eyes to interpret both images and text.

Here’s a great moment where the video explains how Alaskan voters are essentially voting for where the electoral votes should go. And the follow up on having a majority (no matter how big) will cause the electoral votes to go one way or another.

Voting by Electoral College

Without digging into all the fine points that this video was able to demonstrate, I must comment on how this author (CGP Grey) was able to skillfully save the details for later. By this I mean he doesn’t tell you everything all the time. At 1:36 he says “That wasn’t so complicated…” but then goes on to explain a number of caveats, including:

  • …why 11 million Americans technically don’t live in a state.
  • …why certain exceptions to the “norm” exist.
  • …why the electoral college came to into existence and the problem it solved (way back when).

Cons – There are a number of facts that are stated in this video that aren’t sourced. Of course this is an informal sounding explainer video, with simple imagery, but it could easily cause some people to believe that the narrator is presenting a somewhat biased explanation.

Also, after the 1:38 point, there is a touch of editorial that comes out of the under-representation of the 4+ million people living in US Territories. The explainer video almost turns into a call-to-action for an NGO trying to bring change the prevailing system. (Actually, the next video is called “The Trouble with the Electoral College” which is decidedly very opinionated.)

I was surprised that these additional details didn’t include how Maine and Nebraska participate in the electoral college differently – they don’t employ the “winner-take-all” approach.


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