On its surface, a careful analysis of the United States’ electoral college seems more appropriate for a history class than a math class. At University School of Milwaukee, 8th grade students have the chance to study it in both—thus yielding new insights into our country’s elections.
In addition to studying the electoral college in 8th grade American History with Chuck Taft, students in Amy Hand’s Math Adventures class analyzed it from a math standpoint. Using a spreadsheet of data as their starting point, students were asked: Suppose every single American citizen voted in the next presidential election. If you wanted to win the electoral college, and thus the presidency, with the fewest number of votes, what strategy would you use?
Students then worked in small groups to analyze the data, which includes each state’s current population and the number of electoral votes based on the 2020 census, to come up with the answer. “I really like this problem for several reasons,” said Hand, who also serves as USM’s assistant head of school. “There's a critical thinking component, which is, ‘What strategy would you use if you wanted to win with the fewest votes?’ They really have to think creatively and apply what they understand about the electoral college to the math of the problem. In addition to that, they learn a lot of formula and spreadsheet skills, which are also very useful.”
Once the students arrive at the correct strategy, which is to sort the states by the least number of residents per elector to greatest, add up those states until you get to 270 electoral votes, and win each by exactly one vote, they share and refine their solutions. In this case, Hand invited students to speak via Zoom to Jesse Wegman, author of “Let the People Pick the President” and member of The New York Times editorial board, to present and discuss their findings.
As the students discovered, under the theoretical conditions of the problem, winning only about 20% of the popular vote is all that is necessary to win the electoral college. “I think arriving at the solution that it is theoretically possible to win an election in the U.S. with only 20% of the popular vote feels counterintuitive and very surprising to them, and I think that's part of the satisfaction they get when they complete the problem,” said Hand.
Math Adventures is an elective class for 8th grade students, and it exposes them to big ideas in math that are not necessarily covered in traditional math curricula. “My goal is that the students become better problem solvers and that they are exposed to different branches of math, especially those that allow them to see how creative mathematics can be,” said Hand.