During a recent political forum in North Kingstown, R.I., Republican Gov. Lincoln Almond and his Democratic challenger, Myrth York, faced off with competing plans to improve education in the state. Candidates for state attorney general speculated on how they would resolve President Clinton’s current political crisis. And local candidates for town council debated a controversial plan to expand a nearby cargo port.
All said, 40 candidates for state, local, or national offices gathered for Candidates’ Day at North Kingstown High School this month, despite the fact that most of those who turned out to listen aren’t yet old enough to vote.
The Rhode Island school is just one of many around the country sponsoring candidate visits or mock elections this fall as a hands-on way to teach students about the political process and voter responsibility.
As a 24-year-old tradition at the 1,200-student school, Candidates’ Day and the schoolwide mock election that follows it give North Kingstown students a real-life look at both the glories and the hard realities of politics, said Larry Verria, a 12th grade social studies teacher at the school.
To prepare for the event, students in Mr. Verria’s class researched individual candidates, organized the political forum, and then, when the day came, introduced candidates to an auditorium filled with fellow students.
The students say the project humanized the politicians they had previously known only through televised sound bites.
“I was never into politics before I did this project,” 17-year-old Lindsay Burda said. Though not old enough to vote, now that she’s watching the debates, Ms. Burda added, “I really want to vote in this election.”
‘Instilling the Habit’
Beyond civics lessons, simulated elections can also work to instill the habit of voting in young people, said Karen T. Scates, the president and chief executive officer of Kids Voting USA, a Tempe, Ariz.-based organization that provides unofficial Election Day ballots at polling sites nationwide for children who tag along with their parents. The organization estimates that it will reach 5 million students in 20,000 voter precincts next week.
Kids Voting USA was modeled after election practices in Costa Rica, where a long-standing tradition of families going to the polls together helps yield a 90 percent voter-turnout rate, Ms. Scates said.
“When people are exposed to voting at an early age, it stays with you for a lifetime,” she said.
Another program, the National Student/Parent Mock Election, will have its culminating event this week, when students and parents vote on issues and candidates in mock elections in schools across the country.
An estimated 6 million parents and students cast ballots in the simulated election during the organization’s last such event, held in 1996.
After participating in school-sponsored debates or speeches leading up to mock-election night, “we raise their awareness and get them talking about it and talking to their parents about it,” said Emily Penfield, a volunteer for the League of Women Voters in California, a group that is sponsoring mock elections there.
Students in Mr. Verria’s class in Rhode Island have already finished tallying their classmates’ paper ballots, but some say they will continue their involvement with the candidates they adopted for their election project.
For instance, though Lisa Boswell admittedly had no interest in the project at first, the 17-year-old is now working as a campaign volunteer for Charles Fogerty, the Rhode Island Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor.
After spending weeks reading about Mr. Fogerty and interviewing him for the project, Ms. Boswell said she began to feel excited by his plans for the state. “I had a sign that says, ‘Vote for Charles Fogerty’ in all different kinds of glitter,” she said.
Some students said they also learned about the downside of politics and campaigning, when even local politicians were hard to reach, and candidates behaved differently on stage from the way they did in personal conversations.
All in all, students seemed to walk away from the project with a much deeper appreciation for the political process.
“It seemed like a different world when you actually sat down and talked with them,” senior Scott Carroll said. “I didn’t see them as just people on TV shaking hands and kissing babies.”