The Electoral College Explained

by Emily Speelman

The United States is in the last leg of the 2016 Presidential Election and, as November 8 approaches, “The Race to 270” is on. But what does this phrase mean? How does is apply to the everyday voter? And what role does geography play in this race?

“The Race to 270” refers to the number of votes a presidential candidate must win in the Electoral College to secure the presidency. There are a total of 538 members in the college and, to become president, candidates must earn 50% + 1 of their votes. Electors are appointed by their state and the number of electors is equal to their state’s number of representatives in Congress, giving each state a minimum of 3 (accounting for two senators and at least one representative in Congress per state).

Image from National Geographic: http://nationalgeographic.org/maps/electoral-college/

Image from National Geographic: http://nationalgeographic.org/maps/electoral-college/

Rather than voting directly for their desired candidates, citizens cast their ballot to the electors, telling them who to vote for. Based on this popular vote, the state’s electors put all their votes toward the majority candidate. Even if the candidate wins by only 51%, state’s “winner-take-all” policy dedicates that all the state’s electoral college votes can only go to the majority winner.

This applies to all states except Maine and Nebraska, who use Congressional Districts to determine electoral votes. Maine has four electoral votes and two congressional districts: the winner of each district gets at one vote and the statewide winner automatically gets two of the four. Nebraska, with its three electoral votes, has a similar system: the statewide winner gets two votes and the district winner gets the third. It is possible for the votes to split, which is important to note in a close election like this years.

While this sounds pretty straightforward, there are some problems with this system:

  1. Unequal voter power: As previously mentioned, a state’s number of electors is determined by its number of representatives in Congress. With each state getting a minimum of one, the number of house representatives are decided by a state’s total population. By giving each state three electoral votes (to account for the two senators), voting power is unequally distributed amongst the population, which can have a big impact on the election. Votes from states with lower populations (such as Vermont and Wyoming) have more power representation in the Electoral College than their population calls. They receive electoral votes that should belong to states with bigger populations, like California and Texas. Therefore, the individual votes of these smaller population states are giving more weight in determine who their state’s’ electoral votes go.
  2. Problems with a winner-take-all system: The winner-take-all system can greatly misrepresent the popular vote. With this system, the majority candidate in most states gets all of their electoral votes, no matter how much or little they won by. Therefore, the candidate needs to win states votes more than people’s votes.  This can make a massive difference when the nationwide popular vote is calculated, potentially swaying the election results. This occurred in 1876, 1888, and 2000, where the candidate won less than half of the popular vote, but won the election due to the Electoral College’s rules. To see this explained, CGP Grey made video exploring it here.
  3. Missing American Votes: There are a huge amount of American votes missing from each election. Why? This is because US territories are not allowed to vote in the election, with the exception of the District of Columbia (which was only granted in 1964). The territories of Guam, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, Northern Mariana Islands, and US Virgin Islands are not granted Electoral College votes because they are not states. They are, however, US citizens and over 4 million people live here (which is more people than live in the city of Chicago!).

While the Electoral College has its problems, every vote counts in an election. The deadline to register online or by mail in Illinois is October 12 so make sure you are registered and make your voice heard on November 8.

 

Questions about how to vote in Illinois? Click here for a video explaining IL deadlines, absentee ballots, and more!

 

For more information on the Electoral College, see the videos and articles below:

A Breakdown of the Electoral College: http://nationalgeographic.org/maps/electoral-college/

How the Electoral College Works: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OUS9mM8Xbbw

The Trouble with the Electoral Collage: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7wC42HgLA4k

History of US Elections: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=48EZKXweGDo

A COOL Summer

Hello Backyard Geographer readers! My name is Emily Speelman and I am the Social Media Intern for GSC for the 2016-2017 year. I’m excited to share what we’re doing at the Geographic Society with you. While I am new to this position, I’ve been working with the Geographic Society since June through a program called COOL Summer Learning Experience in Waukegan, IL.

COOL is a six-week program for kids ranging from 3rd to 8th grade that focuses on environmental science and teaching sustainable practices. The program’s goal is to enhance students’ skills in science and learn more about the environment around them. This summer’s theme was “Our Footprints on the Earth,” teaching students about their ecological footprint and how they can minimize their footprint through responsible utilization of resources such as soil, water, and air. There were usually 40-55 kids in attendance each day throughout the summer, split into three different classes (3/4, 5/6, 7/8).

My role at COOL was the GIS/GPS Intern. Two days a week, I helped plan and lead GPS-based activities. I worked closely with the teaching staff to show students how to use GPS units (Earthmate PN-40s), explain how GIS/GPS are used to study the environment, and execute GPS activities that expanded on their classroom material. After collecting data in the field, students brought it into ArcOnline to create maps showcasing their results. These maps were used not only for everyday classroom work, but also for their final program at the end of the summer.

We spent the summer studying a variety of topics and traveling throughout the surrounding area to study phenomena such as pollution, water quality, and neighborhood plant life. Some of my favorite projects we worked on were: collecting water samples at Bevier Park and Waukegan North Beach; walking around the neighborhood cleaning up and marking different types of litter; studying carbon footprints by country through ArcOnline; and visiting Illinois Beach State Park to collect soil samples. These projects connected information from the classroom into interactive, exciting projects to show students how ecological consciousness can be incorporated in their everyday activities. I loved spending one-on-one time with the students, getting to know them as they learned and grew this summer.

One of my key takeaway from this summer was how important GIS/GPS is for younger generations to learn. I was amazed at how enthusiastic and excited the students were about it: the students loved working in ArcOnline. They search through the maps, customizing them to properly show the data they collected. The students caught on quickly, often moving on to the next step of a project without needing guidance. The same goes for the GPS units. Since GSC has worked COOL for a few years, some third and fourth year students already had experience and were able to assist others when collecting data on site. They gladly accepted the work at hand and everyone got a chance to operate the units.

I had a great time working at COOL this summer. I was constantly amazed by the students’ ideas and willingness to work on class projects (even though it was their summer break!). Some of their final projects, data and maps created by students, can be seen below:

3rd/4th Final Project5th/6th Grade Final Project

What’s in a Name? Chicago’s Interstates Explained

by Derek Kaden

The city of Chicago has a number of interstates passing through it, and almost every one has its own name. If you’ve ever heard a traffic report in Chicago, it can sound overwhelming and confusing. Where exactly are all of these sections of interstate, and how did they get their names? Today I put together a map to show you exactly where each part of an interstate starts and stops in Chicago, and I explain where each of these names come from. If you live here, hopefully this alleviates confusion the next time you listen to a traffic report, and if you live elsewhere, you will be a more well-seasoned traveler next time you’re passing through the Windy City.

Chicago's Interstates

Chicago Interstates Map

Chicago Interstate Names Explained

Kennedy – Completed in November 1960, it was originally named the Northwest Expressway until 1963. It was then renamed in honor of recently assassinated President John F. Kennedy.

Dan Ryan – The Dan Ryan Expressway opened in December 1962. It was named after Cook County Board President…Dan Ryan, who was a supporter of expressway construction.

Edens – Named after William G. Edens, who was a banker and advocate of paved roads early in the 20th Century. The Edens was the first Interstate in Chicago, and opened in December 1951.

Eisenhower – First referred to as the Congress Expressway, and later named after President Dwight D. Eisenhower, its first stretch of completion was in December 1954. Famous Chicago journalist Mike Royko called I-290 Chicago’s only Republican Interstate, since Eisenhower is the only Republican political figure after which the Interstates were named. The Eisenhower is also the first Interstate in the United States to be fused with public transit (Chicago’s ‘Blue Line’).

As Interstates are concerned, Eisenhower is the most important name on the list. He signed the Interstate and Defense Highways Act as President in 1956, which rapidly increased Interstate construction across the nation. This Act decreed that the Federal Government would cover 90% of all construction costs, while the State only had to pay 10.

Stevenson – Opened for traffic in September 1964, this Interstate was originally known as the Southwest Expressway. Exactly one year later, the Interstate was renamed after Adlai Ewing Stevenson II. Stevenson was Governor of Illinois from 1949 to 1953. He was also the Democratic candidate for President in 1952 and 1956, where he lost decidedly both times against…Dwight D. Eisenhower!

Bishop Ford – The Bishop Ford is a stretch of I-94 that runs around Lake Calumet and a large industrial corridor on Chicago’s far south side. Christened the Bishop Ford Memorial Freeway in 1995, it is named after Louis Henry Ford, who was a Bishop and an advocate of social justice.

Chicago Skyway – Opened in April 1958, and originally referred to as the Calumet Skyway, this is one of only two sections of Interstate in Chicago that is not named after a person.

I-57 – The only section of Interstate referred to by number. Unofficially, it is called Dan Ryan’s West Leg. But that just sounds a bit…strange.

Why is the Ocean Salty?

by Derek Kaden

Why is the Ocean Salty?

The Ocean is salty because of dissolved land materials that are deposited into the Ocean through streams and rivers. Stream and river water does not taste salty because it is moving, compared to the Ocean, which is essentially a giant bath tub. The concept is the same for most lake water. The Great Lakes are not salty because the water contained within them is on the move. According to an article by Science Daily, a drop of water in the Great Lakes will stay there for approximately 200 years before it makes its way out to sea, whereas a droplet of water in the Ocean can take up to 200 million years before it goes anywhere!

Farming for sea salt in Thailand.

Farming for sea salt in Thailand.

Why are Some Lakes Salty?

The most well-known salty inland lakes are the Great Salt Lake in Utah and the Dead Sea in Western Asia. These bodies of water are so salty because they receive a lot of dissolved river deposits and offer no further outlet for those deposits to go. In addition, evaporation is greater than rainfall in these areas. The more evaporation in an area, the higher the salinity (saltiness of water) will be. Rainfall causes salinity levels to sink. The Great Salt Lake has an approximate salinity of 280 parts per thousand, which is 8 times saltier than the average salinity of the Ocean. The Dead Sea’s salinity is 330 parts per thousand, or almost 10 times saltier than the Ocean. The saltiest known inland body of water is the Don Juan Pond in Antarctica, a very small and shallow patch of water that has a salinity of 440 parts per thousand, which is 12 and a half times saltier than the Ocean!

The dense salty water of the Dead Sea makes it very easy to float - without a floaty!

The dense salty water of the Dead Sea makes it very easy to float – without a floaty!

What are the Key Differences Between Fresh Water and Salt Water?

Some of the most marked differences between fresh water and salt water are in their freezing points and boiling points. Pure water freezes at a very familiar temperature: 32 degrees Fahrenheit (o Celsius). Average Ocean water that has salinity of 35 parts per thousand freezes at a lower temperature: 28.6 degrees Fahrenheit (-1.9 Celsius). In fact, the more saline a body of water is, the lower the temperature must be for that water to freeze. Since the Don Juan Pond is so salty, it still doesn’t freeze even when temperatures reach -22 degrees Fahrenheit (-30 Celsius)!

The boiling point of average Ocean water is only slightly higher than the boiling point of fresh water. Fresh water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit (100 Celsius), whereas Ocean water boils at 213.1 Fahrenheit (100.6 Celsius). This means that adding salt to your soup or pasta water will actually make the food cook slightly quicker, and it will of course make it taste better! It’s important to add the salt after the water starts boiling, otherwise it will take longer to reach a boil.