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Mock Elections, Voter Programs Seek To Plug In Tuned-Out Students

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Who says you have to be tall enough to reach the voting levers in order to cast a ballot?

At least four separate, nationally organized mock elections and other voter-awareness programs this fall will give millions of students a chance to voice their opinions on the presidential candidates and other issues.

Organizers hope the elections will teach students about the American political system and, as a side effect, encourage more parents to vote.

In one of the largest efforts, more than 5 million students and 300,000 teachers and volunteers are expected to take part in the 1996 Kids Voting USA program. The program allows students in grades K-12 to cast their own votes on Election Day in designated booths at official polling places. Local newspapers and television stations are encouraged to report the results along with the official vote counts.

The Tempe, Ariz.-based program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education and several philanthropic and corporate backers, began in 1988.

It also includes classroom activities designed to encourage information-gathering and decisionmaking skills. High school students, for example, are asked to keep a record of their daily activities, then identify how the government is involved in each of them.

Organizers say the mock elections can have a positive effect on the voting habits of both students and parents.

"By exciting students ... the adults then become excited," said Cynthia Dunne, the director of communications and development for the Kids Voting USA program.

Voting on the Internet

In another well-known project, the Tucson, Ariz.-based National Student/Parent Mock Election brings the political system into the classroom through student debates and discussions, and ends with a final vote on the candidates and issues at the end of this month.

The final tally from the program will be aired on C-SPAN and CNN on Oct. 30. Results of the student votes on issues are compiled into a guidebook that will be distributed to educators across the country.

More than 5 million students and parents participated in 1992, and organizers hope for a similar number this year, said the program's founder, Gloria Kirshner. The program began in 1980.

Pat Dobbs, a teacher at David Crockett High School in Austin, Texas, has enrolled her students in the program for the past 20 years.

The activities are important in reducing students' fear of an often intimidating political system, she said. "Having hands-on experience takes the scare out of it," she said.

This year, for the first time, students in the program may vote using the Internet.

Other programs designed to encourage youth participation this fall include:

  • NetVote '96, a joint voter-registration and -awareness program sponsored by MCI Telecommunications Inc. and Rock the Vote, a music-industry effort to encourage young voters.

The program allows young people to take part in public opinion surveys and to vote in an on-line mock election.

  • First Vote, a classroom-based voter-education effort sponsored by People for the American Way.

The Washington-based advocacy organization began the awareness program after conducting a study that found the majority of young people feel disconnected from civic and political life.

"Our goal is to see that every student leaves high school with a diploma in one hand and a voter-registration card in the other," said Sandy Horwitt, the program's director.

Program materials include a curriculum guide and a 15-minute video about the history and potential of the American vote. Materials are free for participating schools.

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