What Am I Voting For?


Hook Activity

What do students already know about elections in Texas? Each student identifies truths and lies about elections by writing true or false as the instructor reads the questions to the class.

  1. The winner of the election for governor in Texas is the one who wins a majority of the votes. (False. The governor is chosen in a general election in which the winners are the ones who get the most votes (plurality), not necessarily the majority of votes. Winners in local and primary elections must get a majority of the votes.)
  2. Third parties generally have a difficult time winning votes in Texas. (True. In Texas, as in most of the US, our systems are winner-takes-all types in which the candidate who gets the most or the majority of votes is the winner. As a result, many voters are reluctant to “waste” votes on third, or minor, parties. This is why the two parties are so dominant in the United States. In proportional systems, such as those found in many other countries, representatives are allocated to legislatures in proportion to the votes their parties got so that even minor parties get representation. This makes voting for minor parties a more attractive alternative.)
  3. Straight-ticket voting is the option to check one box and vote for all candidates of a single party. (True. The practice of voting for every candidate that a political party has on the ballot by checking one box is referred to as straight-ticket voting. Straight-ticket voting is not available in most states and will no longer be an option on Texas ballots starting in 2020.)
  4. Republican Texas voters can vote in a Democratic primary. (True. Texas is effectively an open primary state, meaning that voters do not register or officially declare themselves to be either Democrats or Republicans. Consequently, they can vote in either party’s primary election. In a “closed” primary state where voters have to declare a party affiliation, only voters registered in a party may vote in that party’s primary.)

View Video

https://dcccd.yuja.com/V/Video?v=210523&node=1027370&a=1531780535&autoplay=1  ( 3:48 minutes)

Video Outline: What Am I Voting For?

  • Students respond to questions about:
    • Elected officials: (Can you name the governor, lieutenant governor, county sheriff?)
    • Primary or caucus system (Which system does Texas use to elect candidates from the two major parties in the general election?)
  • Guide summarizes:
    • Primary Elections (partisan, held in spring of even numbered years)
      • Winners become their party’s nominees for the general election.
      • Candidates run for federal, state, and county offices such as president, governor, representative, senator, judge, etc.
    • General Elections (partisan, held in November of even numbered years)
      • Winners of primaries and conventions run against each other.
      • Winner is elected to office.
      • Voters elect federal, state, and county officials such as president, governor, representatives, senators, judges, etc.
    • Local Elections (usually nonpartisan but sometimes partisan, as in Houston; usually held in May but can be held in November)
      • Voters elect city council members and school and community college district trustees.
    • Special Elections (nonpartisan; state constitutional amendment elections are held in November of odd numbered years; others at various times.)
      • Voters in special elections vote on referendums, city charter amendments, bond authorizations, state constitutional amendments, to fill vacancies, etc.

Reading Assignment

  • When to Vote – Texas Secretary of State
    Have students read the timeline of various elections to infer federalism: local, state, national elections are different dates and run by varying political subdivisions.
    • Talk/Read/Talk/Write (PDF-59 KB)
      Talk 1 What are the steps an individual needs to take to run for office?
      Read 2.1 Getting on the Ballot: Primaries, Party Conventions, and Petitions
      2.2 Winning Public Office: General Elections and Special Elections
      Talk 2 Which phase, the primary or the general election, is more critical to ultimately winning office in Texas?
      Write How might your strategy and messaging change during the primary and general elections?
  • American Government. 7.3 Elections
    Krutz, Glen, and Sylvie Waskiewicz, ed. Open Stax, Rice University. 2016.

Activity – Vocabulary*

Instructor provides vocabulary work as needed. (See terms and definitions at end of activities.) For example, students could complete a Frayer Model for unfamiliar vocabulary terms. See

Activity – Reading Assignment Quiz

Short Answer/Essay Questions
(Instructor chooses questions from the following. Answers and suggested responses are italicized.)

  • In other developed countries with free elections, many political parties may share power. Why are the two major parties so dominant in the United States? (Most of our elections are winner-takes-all types which foster the development of a strong two-party rather than a multi-party system.)
  • What are some pros and cons of a strong two-party system? (Pros – simpler for voters, potential for strong decision making, stable. Cons – fosters competition rather than cooperation, minority interests do not have a voice, voters may feel dissatisfied when their individual priorities are not represented.)
  • What are some pros and cons of single member districts? (Pros – depending on how district boundaries have been drawn they can give minorities a voice who would otherwise not be able to elect a representative; increased minority or neighborhood opportunity encourages more candidates to run; more efficient for candidates as they do not have to campaign over the entire jurisdiction but only within their district; elected officials are more directly responsible to the voters in their district. Cons – depending on how district boundaries have been draw there is potential for heightened racial or ethnic divisions across a jurisdiction; elected officials compete for money and resources to benefit their districts rather than cooperating for the good of the jurisdiction as a whole.)
  • Are U.S. congressional representatives from Texas elected by a proportional system, an at-large system, or a single member district system? (single member district)
  • Are U.S. senators from Texas elected by a proportional system, an at-large system, or a single member district system? (at-large system)

Activity – Small Group Discussions

Topics to be discussed in small groups and then shared with the entire class:

    • Tactical voting – occurs “in elections with more than two candidates, when a voter supports another candidate more strongly than his or her sincere preference in order to prevent an undesirable outcome.” From Wikipedia “Tactical Voting”
      • Can you think of an election where “tactical voting” occurred? (Suggested response: In the presidential election of 2016, there were four candidates on the ballot nationally – Republican, Democrat, Green and Libertarian. There was an overwhelming likelihood that either the Republican or the Democrat would win due to our two-party dominant system. Some voters who preferred the Green or Libertarian candidate voted for the Republican or the Democrat instead, not wanting to “waste” a vote and contribute to a win for the candidate they liked least. These were “tactical voters.” Others who preferred the Green or Libertarian voted for their favorite candidate despite their understanding that their candidate would not win.)
      • Did tactical voting take place in the 2018 primary? Research articles or blogs by political scientists to see whether public educators voting in the Republican primary in 2018 made any numeric difference. Also explore twitter hashtags #canDan and #blowthewhistle.
      • What is your opinion of tactical voting?
    • What are the advantages and disadvantages of “open” primaries vs “closed” primaries? (Suggested response: In open primaries, voters chose which primary to vote when they go to vote. In a closed primary, voters must publically declare their party affiliation in advance of the election. They may then only vote in that party’s primary. An open primary gives maximum flexibility to voters. A closed primary minimizes the risk to parties that voters who favor one party will “cross over” and vote for the weaker candidate in the opposing party’s primary in order to strengthen their own party’s chances in the general election.)
    • What are the pros and cons of partisan versus nonpartisan elections? (Suggested response: Pro – Sometimes people say they do not vote in local elections because they don’t know anything about the candidates. Party affiliation gives voters cues that may help with decision-making. Con – Political parties may have goals and motivations and conflicts that are intense but not relevant to a local jurisdiction and can confuse local issues. Voters may make mistakes assuming things about a candidate’s potential as a local elected official based on the candidate’s political party.)
    • We sometimes hear that in Texas, the primary election is more important than the general election. Why do people say that and to what extent is it true?
      (Suggested responses:)

      • To the extent that the majority of voters in a district voted for a party in the past, they probably will do the same in the future, and the winner of the general election will probably be the one from the party that won the last time. Gerrymandering exaggerates this probability. Thus, the theory is that the real selection of the individual winner was made in the primary.
      • However, populations change as young people reach voting age and people die or move. Also, people change their minds as new strong or weak candidates present themselves. Consequently, it is a false to assume that the voters of a jurisdiction will always vote the same way in the future as in past.
      • Consequently, while it is true that the primary election is very important, it is false to assume that all the important decisions are made in primaries and the outcomes of general elections are predetermined. There are many examples where the winner of a general election was not the one expected, even in gerrymandered jurisdictions. Furthermore, the assumption that the important decisions are made in the primary rather than the general election has an unfortunate suppressive effect on turnout in the general election, which distorts results.
  • In the electoral college where the President is selected, Texas gets 38 out of 538 votes. Are the Texas electoral votes allocated on a winner-takes-all or a proportional basis? Is this typical for other states? What are the implications? (Suggested response: Electoral college votes from Texas are allocated on a winner-takes-all basis. The presidential candidate in the general election who gets the most votes gets all the state’s electoral votes. This is true for most states. The exceptions are Maine and Nebraska which allocate their votes on a proportional basis. The allocation of votes on a winner-takes-all basis from states means that a president can be elected who lost the popular vote. The allocation of an electoral vote to states for each US Senator also contributes to this phenomenon since every state get these two votes regardless of population. There are five instances in American history of presidents who won in the electoral college but not the popular vote, most recently in 2000 and 2016.)

*Suggested terms and definitions for vocabulary work:

  • Primary election – election in which the major political parties (Democrats and Republicans) nominate the candidates who will compete in the general election. Held in March of even numbered years. Partisan.
  • General election – an election in which candidates from political parties compete to hold office. Held in November of even numbered years. Partisan.
  • Local election – election for city council, school board trustee, community college district board trustee. Traditionally held in May but in recent years some local jurisdictions have moved their elections to November. Can be held in even or odd numbered years. Usually nonpartisan, sometimes partisan.
  • Special election – election other than a primary, general or local election. Examples are for approval of state constitutional amendments, to fill vacancies, to consider approval of bonds (debt), city charter amendments, etc. Constitutional amendment elections are held in November of odd numbered years, other special elections may be held at a variety of time. Nonpartisan.
  • Single member districts (a type of “winner-takes-all”) – an area is divided into a number of geographically defined voting districts, each of which is represented by one elected official.
  • At large districts (usually a type of “winner-takes-all”) – all voters in a jurisdiction vote for all seats up for election. If the winner of each seat must be selected by a majority of votes, then the system is a winner-takes-all system. Often some of the seats in at large districts have residency requirements for candidates.
  • Plurality system (a type of “winner-takes-all”) – an election system in which the winner is the candidate who gets the most votes. Winners in general elections are chosen by plurality.
  • Majority system (“winner-takes-all”) – an election system in which the winner is the candidate who gets the majority (50% or more) of the votes. Winners in primary and local elections are chosen by majority. If no candidate gets a majority (which can happen in an election where there are more than two candidates) then the top two vote getters compete in a runoff election.
  • Proportional system – an election system in which each political party is represented in the legislature in proportion to the number of votes it got in an election. Contrasts with a winner-takes-all system and is conducive to strong third parties. Proportional systems are rare in the United States but common in other countries.