Students Sample Election Politics

At more than 100 US high schools, mock presidential elections heighten political awareness

ALTHOUGH they aren't old enough to vote in the national election tomorrow, students across the United States are voicing their political opinions through mock presidential elections.

In one of the largest mock elections, more than 40,000 high schoolers from Claremont, Calif., to Auburn, Maine, endorsed Gov. Bill Clinton by a landslide last Thursday.

Governor Clinton received 331 electoral votes while Ross Perot, with 109 electoral votes, edged out President George Bush, who gained only 98 electoral votes.

The V.O.T.E.S. project - or Voting Opportunities for Teenagers in Every State - includes 103 public and private high schools. Every state is represented.

The project began four years ago as an effort to involve high school students in the political process. "These kids will all be eligible to vote in the next four years," says Lorrie Byrom, a history teacher at Northfield Mount Hermon School in Northfield, Mass., a private boarding school that organizes the project.

"It's an opportunity to use our voice in a way that can impact our community without actually participating in the real election," says junior Chrystel Romero. "It's about as close as we can get since most of us are under age."

In 1988, the V.O.T.E.S. results predicted the outcome of the actual presidential election.

Yet forecasting the winner isn't the goal of this project, says Jim Shea, another history teacher at Northfield Mount Hermon.

"We're not trying to predict the results on Tuesday at all," Mr. Shea says. "I think the month leading up to our election is more important than the results."

At Northfield Mount Hermon, the entire month of October was devoted to gearing up for the election. It began with voter registration and the organization of campaigns. Campus rallies and debates became a regular feature.

"The students are really enthusiastic about the whole thing," says Pete Guiney, manager of the Clinton campaign on campus.

The V.O.T.E.S. project has permeated this 1,100-student school. There's an essay contest titled "The Successful President, 1993 - Who Has What It Takes?" Even the weekend movie schedule was overtaken by political flicks.

"One really important part of the project is that the kids see that it's not just a history or political science project," Ms. Byrom says. "There really is a lot going on across the disciplines."

Math classes worked with the statistics of electoral college votes. Economics teachers talked about the economic issues at stake in the election. A psychology class conducted an extensive pre-election poll of some 500 students.

"We're hoping to be somewhat of a model campus for the other 102 participating schools," Shea says. Many of those schools sponsored their own unique events.

At Gill St. Bernard's School in Gladstone, N.J., students held a press conference for local reporters who interviewed student campaign representatives.

One of Clinton's cousins came to The Thatcher School in Ojai, Calif., for a lively debate with a local Republican representative. Pupils act out debate

During a final campus debate last Wednesday at Northfield Mount Hermon, students packed the Northfield chapel and listened attentively to two debating students acting as Bush and Clinton.

Carrie Cooke, as Bush, and Sarah Spill, as Clinton, wore pin-striped suit jackets and ties in an effort to resemble the candidates, if only slightly.

Outside the chapel, the school's Clinton and Bush campaign managers manned tables with pins and hoisted signs advertising their candidates.

"There's a very prevalent Clinton support on campus, so a lot of the Bush supporters keep quiet," says Anne McCasland-Pexton, a senior.

"The majority is definitely against us here," says Dan West, a senior and co-campaign manager for the Bush campaign. "The true Bush supporters are very few - about five or so." Perspective broadened

Although Mr. West is unwavering in his support for Bush, he says the V.O.T.E.S. project has broadened his perspective. "I'm more aware of the other side now. I've learned a lot more about Clinton and Gore than I knew before this started. And I'm glad of it because now I'm able to argue more against it."

The key is being informed, West says. "A lot of students vote just like their parents, but once they get informed they make their own decision. I'd rather have people who know about the issues voting against Bush than to have them vote out of ignorance."

The campus campaign focused on several key issues of importance to these high schoolers. "The three issues that we really banked on here were education, women's issues, and the environment," Mr. Guiney says. "Those are things that really matter for students. We really want to get involved and see something happen."

On election night, students tabulated the results and filled out a wall-size US map showing the state-by-state electoral votes.

"Election Central is here at Northfield Mount Hermon and the schools across the country phone in here," explains Shea.

Mock election coverage took place throughout the tabulation process. Student interviewers peppered faculty members with questions about the incoming results.

"Students have taken this extremely seriously," says Ms. McCasland-Pexton, who served as a news anchor on election night. "People are talking about it in their classes, over lunch, and in the dormitories."

Although McCasland-Pexton has been actively involved in politics for some time, she sees some students who are just becoming politically aware through the V.O.T.E.S. project.

"I've been a political junkie ever since I can remember," she says. "I follow politics. But a lot of the students haven't been aware and now they're starting to read the newspaper and pay attention to what's going on. I haven't talked to anyone who thinks it's a waste of time."

"I never really understood a lot of the process, which I do now," says Molly Goggins, a senior. Voter apathy targeted

The V.O.T.E.S. organizers hope to inspire more solid voter participation from the next batch of American voters. "The percentage of 18-to-25-year-olds voting in the last national election was extremely low," Shea says. "It was only about 30 percent, which is absolutely pathetic. So we're trying to attack that issue."

Some of the students at Northfield Mount Hermon are enthusiastic about the prospects for raising voter participation among young citizens.

"I absolutely will vote four years from now," McCasland-Pexton says. "I think most of the people in the V.O.T.E.S. project will too. That is one of the main purposes - to let people know that they have a voice and a vote that counts."

"We have no concrete evidence that everyone who voted here four years ago is going to vote Tuesday," Shea says. "But we figure that if the kids are educated and excited about the political process, it's going to carry over."

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