First Bell: Five questions to ask about today’s elections

I’m not ashamed to admit that I really, really like Election Day. For political junkies like me, elections are like the Super Bowl, World Series and NCAA Tournament all wrapped into one. I also recognize that not everyone shares my enthusiasm, which may help explain why my own son is an art major now.

One of the cool things about elections, in my mind, is the opportunity they afford to hone one’s skills across a wide range of subjects — from reading and math to science and literature. And this year is certainly no exception.

For example, this year’s election has already taught me a new word, or at least a new definition of an old word: “pivot.” That is, when a politician is asked a question during a debate about a subject they would prefer not to talk about, they simply “pivot” and turn the question into something else.

That’s why the second presidential debate, which ostensibly was supposed to be about foreign policy, ended up being mostly about domestic tax policy and deficit reductions. The candidates “pivoted.”

But there are plenty of other educational lessons to be had during elections dealing with other academic subjects. So, for parents and teachers who want to turn tonight’s election returns into an educational lesson — or if you’re just looking for ways to talk about it without getting into a partisan argument — here are five study questions to think about as the numbers come rolling in:

Science: How is it possible to predict election results based on a survey of only 800 people? And how can the networks tell who’s winning a state based on exit polls?

This question has to do with two types of sampling: random and stratified. Before the election, pollsters try to figure out who is most likely to vote and then draw a random sample from that group. Tonight, they’ll pick out a handful of “representative” precincts in each state and, from that, extrapolate how all other similar precincts are likely to vote.

At first blush, many people are skeptical of the whole idea. But I remember a professor in college explaining it to me: If you really don’t believe in sampling, the next time you go in for a physical and they want to take a blood sample, tell your doctor you don’t believe in it and say you insist the lab test all of your blood.

The trick to sampling is in making sure you’re sampling the right thing. In pre-election polls, you want to sample people who are actually going to vote, and that’s sometimes a difficult thing to predict. In exit polling, you want to sample areas that give you an indication of how the rest of the state is going to vote. That’s why there probably won’t be a whole lot of exit polling happening in Douglas County tonight. Traditionally, this area is not a bellwether for the rest of the state.

Reading comprehension: Test yourself and see whether you can explain, in just a sentence or two, what that constitutional amendment on the ballot dealing with taxes on watercraft is all about.

Ballot questions often present a real challenge to voters. They tend to be very long, including all the technical language that is proposed to become part of the constitution, as well as an “explanation” of the question, which may be no more help than the technical language.

For a better explanation of this one, I would defer to the Associated Press article published earlier on the subject.

History/Government: What is the Electoral College, and why is it there?

If you believe what many of the pundits have been saying the last few days, this could become an important question. Basically, many of our Founding Fathers were skeptical of the whole idea of direct popular elections. Remember that in the original election form, U.S. senators were not directly elected either. They were chosen by state legislatures. That didn’t change until 1913 with ratification of the 17th amendment.

In much the same way, voters today still don’t directly elect the president. It’s done by states. Each state has the same number of electoral votes as it has members of the House and Senate. In addition, Washington, D.C., is given three electoral votes, signifying the two senators and one representative it would have if it were a state, even though it isn’t.

By voting for president and vice president, you’re actually voting for “electors” — that is, people chosen by the party that wins a majority in the state who, in turn, will cast their votes for president and vice president.

It’s actually kind of an interesting ceremony that takes place in Topeka, sometime after the results are officially certified by the Secretary of State.

Math: How is it possible for a candidate to win the most votes and still lose the election?

First, see the discussion above about the Electoral College.

In all but two states (Nebraska and Maine), electoral votes are awarded on a winner-take-all basis. If a candidate gets 50 percent plus one of the popular vote in a state, he or she gets 100 percent of the electoral vote. It makes no difference whether a candidate wins the state by a little or by a lot.

Therefore, if a candidate wins certain states by huge margins, and narrowly loses the others, he or she can have a sizable advantage in the popular vote and still lose the all-important electoral vote.

This last happened in 2000 when the presidential race came down to a virtual tie in Florida. Republican George W. Bush won the state by 537 votes (out of nearly 6 million votes cast) and therefore won all 25 of its electoral votes, putting him over the top in the Electoral College, even though Democrat Al Gore actually received about half a million more popular votes nationwide.