Electing a new president

Level B1

In 1788-89, at a time when most heads of state were unelected kings and queens, Americans voted to elect their first president. They chose George Washington, the hero of the American War for Independence. Since then, every four years, there has been a new election. Starting in 1848, election day has always been held on the Tuesday after the first Monday of November. This was decided to suit the religious and agrarian society of the time. November falls between harvest time (a busy period for farmers) and the winter months when travelling was more difficult. Tuesday was ideal because it allowed people to go to church on Sunday, travel to their polling place on Monday, vote on Tuesday, and return home for market day, which was on Wednesday.

 

Fearful of kings and suspicious of people

Washington was elected twice and decided not to run for a third term. This became an unwritten rule: for almost a century and a half no president served for more than two terms. Then, in 1940, Franklin D. Roosevelt broke with tradition and was elected for a third term, and, in 1944, for a fourth. In 1951, a maximum of two presidential terms was written into the Constitution. This put an end to a fear that already existed back in 1789: that a president could rule for life, like a king. Curiously, the nation’s founders were also fearful of democracy: what if the people voted for somebody unfit to be president? To prevent this, they made the vote for president indirect. This means that when Americans vote for their candidate, they are actually voting for a group of people called ‘electors’ (who form the Electoral College) who then elect the president. According to the founders, the electors could decide to ignore the popular vote if they believed the winner was unqualified to be president. So far, though, the electors have always respected the popular vote.

 

Winners and outsiders

This strange system also has a big problem: the winner of the popular vote does not necessarily win the election. This means that a candidate might receive more popular votes than his opponents, but less electoral votes. Donald Trump did not win the popular vote, but still became president. Also George W. Bush, in 2000, lost the popular vote but won the election. Another issue is that the winner is always a candidate of either the Democratic or the Republican party. Some feel that this limits the choice of the voters to just two alternatives. Third parties have tried to break this duopoly, but unsuccessfully. A famous third-party contender was Eugene Debbs, who ran five times for president. His last attempt was in 1920, when he ran his campaign… from jail. Debbs, head of the Socialist Party, was in prison for protesting against the US intervention in World War I. He received 900,000 votes, not enough to compete with the Republican and Democratic candidates.

 

Trump vs. Biden

This year saw a very tough fight between the two main contenders, the incumbent president Donald Trump and the Democratic nominee Joe Biden, who was vice-president under president Barack Obama. This presidential campaign took place during one of the most turbulent times in American history. A time during which the country has been plagued by the Covid pandemic, its terrible economic impact, serious climate change consequences (such as the megafires in California), and widespread racial tension. On these issues, the programmes of the two candidates differed greatly. They outlined two very different future paths for the United States. Due to this, many consider this election one of the most important in US history. The voter turnout was record-breaking, and it favoured Joe Biden who won the majority of both the popular and the electoral votes. (He received 75 million popular votes, the most ever cast for a presidential candidate.) In his victory speech, Biden vowed to bring unity to a divided nation. He will be helped by his running mate, Kamala Harris, who became the first woman, as well as the first African American and Asian American, to be elected vice-president.

 

USEFUL LINKS

1) Read these short biographies of the presidents mentioned in the article, Washington, Roosevelt, Bush, Obama and Trump (or any other president) here:

https://www.ducksters.com/biography/uspresidents/

2) Read some fun facts about American presidents:

https://kids.nationalgeographic.com/explore/history/presidential-fun-facts/

3) Confused about how American presidents get elected? You can read this to help you understand:

https://kids.nationalgeographic.com/explore/history/us-presidents/what-is-the-job-of-the-us-president/

Or watch this brief video:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LY8L6C7tsx8

4)Who was Eugene Debbs? Here is a short video about him:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sMEwR4WtvCg

COMPREHENSION

1) Read the article and cross out the WRONG alternative (two answers are correct and one is incorrect).

1. George Washington  

  1. is considered a hero.
  2. was elected president three times.
  3. was the first US president.

2. In 1848, election day was set on a specific day to suit the needs of

  1. a very religious population.
  2. farmers.
  3. politicians.

3. When Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected four times, he broke

  1. the law.
  2. an unwritten rule.
  3. the record of presidential terms.

4. The founders of the US

  1. didn’t like kings.
  2. wanted to control who became president.
  3. decided nobody should be president more than two times.

5. The Electoral College

  1. must respect the popular vote.
  2. Has always respected the popular vote.
  3. elects the president of the United States.

6. The candidate who gets the most popular votes

  1. might lose the election.
  2. always becomes president.
  3. might receive less electoral votes than his main opponent.

7. Eugene Debbs

  1. became president in 1920 after receiving 900,000 votes.
  2. was not a Democrat or a Republican.
  3. was against the war.

8. Joe Biden is

  1. a Democrat.
  2. the current vice-president.
  3. competing against the current president.

9. Donald Trump and Joe Biden

  1. agree on many issues.
  2. have very different programmes.
  3. fought very hard against each other.
  1.  Joe Biden’s presidency can already be considered historic because
  1. he won both the popular and the electoral votes.
  2. he is the most voted presidential candidate in US history.
  3. his running mate is the first Asian and Black female vice president.

 

VOCABULARY

2) Complete the sentences with the following words. Put the verbs and nouns in the right form, if necessary.

to break with  *  incumbent  *  head of state  *  to differ  *  polling place  *  to suit  *  to outline  *  widespread  *  to plague  *  founder

1.  A person who is currently holding a specific position, such as the position of president, is defined as ________.

2. Different countries have different ________: the UK has a queen, the US a president. 

3. The Coronavirus pandemic is extremely ________: it has reached every corner of the world.

4. Legend says that Romulus and Remus were the ________ of Rome.

5. We ________ on many political issues, but we agree that voting is important.

6. A ________ or station, is a place where people cast their votes.

7. I am ________ with doubt! Did I vote for the best candidate?

8. A politician should be intelligent, competent and care for the citizens. I think that our president does not ________ these qualifications.

9. You don’t have to give me a detailed description of your book, just give me a simple ________.

10. I want to ________ my past – I want to start a new life!

 

GRAMMAR – PHRASAL VERBS

3) Complete the phrasal verbs with the right particle or preposition.

1. I am working ______ (at/on/with) a project about the American War of Independence.

2. George Washington passed ______ (away/up/around) on December 14, 1799, aged 67.

3. A politician needs to come _____ (with/on/up) with a good catch phrase for his campaign.

4. I hate it when he brings ______ (down/up/around) politics – I really don’t like his views!

5. This is no time to mess ______ (around/down/away) – we need to be serious.

6. He turned ______ (after/up/down) your offer to become our class representative.

7. Hang ______ (on/at/down)! Don’t go without me.

8. I am fed ______ (up/down/after) with studying! Please, let’s take a break.

9. If you really believe in what you do, you should never give ______ (down/up/away)

10. For me, a good politician needs to look ______ (on/down/after) the poor. 

 

SHORT ESSAY

4) Do you think voting is important? In what other ways can you contribute to the future of your society? (60-80 words)

5) Do you see a problem in your society that politicians should solve? Explain what the problem is and what you think could be a possible solution. (60-80 words)

___

(Carlo Dellonte)

(Image credits: Wikimedia Commons and Flickr)

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