JDHS students give vote to Kerry

Mock election teaches about Electoral College

Posted: Sunday, October 31, 2004

Juneau-Douglas High School students preferred John Kerry to George Bush in a mock election Friday.

Forty-six percent of 1,137 students voted for Kerry. The votes might include some teachers. Bush received 39 percent of the vote. Ralph Nader got less than 1 percent.

The election was a project about the Electoral College by four seniors in Gary Lehnhart's government class.

All the ballots simulated the Alaska ballot, because the organizers wanted to see how students voted for Alaska candidates.

Rep. Don Young won 58 percent of the students' vote for the U.S. House seat. Tony Knowles beat U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski 65 percent to 23 percent for her seat. State Rep. Beth Kerttula defeated Andrew Engstrom 61 percent to 37 percent in the state House. State Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch edged Bob Doll 50.5 percent to 48 percent in Juneau's other state House seat.

The JDHS students narrowly rejected Ballot Measure 1, which makes it harder to place initiatives on the ballot. Fifty-six percent supported legalizing marijuana. Students were perfectly split on banning bear baiting. And 58 percent favored Ballot Measure 4, which would stop the governor from appointing a person to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate.

Seniors Jeren Higgs, Mike Prebeg, Adara Buell and Jade Aldrighette organized the school election, in which classrooms represented states, and they developed activities about the Electoral College for students in elementary and middle schools.

The project fulfilled Lehnhart's requirement that his government students do 10 hours of community service.

As some of Lehnhart's students are surprised to learn, Americans don't directly elect their president. Rather, the states and the District of Columbia choose the president through the Electoral College. The states' votes match the size of their congressional delegations.

In the mock election, Kerry won 341 of the electoral votes and Bush garnered 196.

In the mid-1990s Lehnhart found that students were intrigued by how changes in the popular vote within a few states could turn a winning candidate into a loser in the Electoral College. He ran mock elections at JDHS in 1996 and 2000.

"The last election, we didn't have to manipulate it. We had it," he said of Al Gore's circumstance in 2000. Gore had about 500,000 more votes than Bush nationwide but lost the election.

Buell developed a brief curriculum for grade schools, in which students suggest mock ballot measures they'd like to see enacted in their schools. Then the children put their heads down, to simulate secrecy, and vote.

Buell said she had "to think like an elementary student, to catch their interest. And I work at a day care, so I just asked them."

"A useful microcosm," Higgs added.

Aldrighette designed for the middle schools a hypothetical Electoral College of six states with simplified populations of 50 to 250 people. Students can play with the popular-vote totals within each state to see how a candidate can get the most votes and still lose the election.

Because the model assumes that everyone voted, it gives teachers an opportunity to talk about how unrealistic that is and what real voter turnouts are. Aldrighette provided such statistics from 1960 on, with a few earlier elections as well.

The middle school students need "to figure out that in real life voter turnout is about half," she said.

Aldrighette also prepared an information sheet about the Electoral College's purpose, with a map and a political cartoon she drew. It shows a big, buff man labeled California and a scrawny man who represents Alaska and its measly three electoral votes. "Shouldn't every state be equally important?" is the caption.

The mock election couldn't perfectly match the real election. All the ballots included Ralph Nader, although he isn't on the ballot in some states. It was too hard to compose different ballots for each state/classroom.

But in the interest of fairness, the students moved President Bush's name from the bottom of the ballot, where it occurs on the real Alaska ballot, to the middle, near John Kerry's name. They didn't want to be suspected of treating Bush unfairly.

"And, as always, it will be interesting to see who we get as write-ins," Lehnhart said during a planning session Wednesday.

Britney Spears could get votes, he said.

"That's sad," Prebeg said.

In fact, Jesus, Satan, Stalin, Voldemort, and Tickle Me Elmo won votes, as did people with suspiciously lewd names.

With Lehnhart's guidance, the organizing students also had to think about how to design a fair ballot. All the check marks were on the left of a candidate's name, avoiding the infamous "butterfly" ballot that confused Florida voters in the 2000 election. And the students put gray backgrounds behind every second candidate's name, so that it was visually obvious which check mark went with each candidate.

Other students in Lehnhart's classes helped distribute, collect and count the ballots Friday. One classroom either didn't vote or its ballots were lost, which will give Lehnhart the opportunity to talk about election blunders.

The biggest challenge in devising the mock Electoral College was how to match classrooms with states, Prebeg said. The students decided that 10 small classes would represent California, the most populous state.

The next biggest challenge was formatting the ballot on the computer.

"The programs were being very evil," Higgs said.

"There's a little learning curve on the computer," was how Lehnhart put it.

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