Pope John Students take to the polls

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:17

    SPARTA-When Pope John XXIII High School students vote in a mock election this week, the results may foreshadow the outcome of the upcoming Nov. 2 election in which their parents will participate. The mock election of presidential and congressional races, part of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics program called Youth Leadership Initiative, has Pope John students joining a million more across the country in learning firsthand how an election works. Students voted Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday this week on computer screen ballots, similar to the electronic voting screens their parents will see next Tuesday. The mock election results will be announced on Friday, Oct. 29. And if history is any indication, the real election will follow suit. In 40 years of Youth Leadership Initiative mock elections, the results have been an accurate predictor of the real election. Thomas G. Morro, teacher at Pope John, said statistics show that through high school, children reflect the political ideology of their parents. A difference, however, is that the children often go into the voting booth even more informed about the candidates and issues, he said. "I'm absolutely certain they're more informed than their parents," said Morro, who teaches advanced placement U.S. history, and government and politics. That's due in part to what's being done in the classrooms at Pope John before voting takes place. Students have been researching candidates and their stands on issues. Before voting, they're expected to know their congressional district and its issues. "We watched the debates and made up our own questions," said Kristin McGinn of Hackettstown, a freshman at Pope John. The students said they aren't simply mimicking their parents political views, and said they remained open minded throughout their research. "People are willing to be open minded and open to changing opinions," said Lev Zelenin, a senior government student who was working as a poll worker at the election on Tuesday. This is the first year Pope John High School has participated in the program. "We're taking advantage of one of the teachable moments that present themselves in a presidential election," Morro said. "We want to get the kids interested in the voting process." Meg Heubeck, a spokesman for the Youth Leadership Initiative in Charlottesville, Va., said the students in some 12,000 classrooms across the country participating in the mock election find the voting process fascinating and fun. "The kids are so excited," Heubeck said. "It's so wonderful." The program includes kindergarteners through 12th graders, Heubeck said. For some of the youngest students, the voting process is as simple as choosing a ballot with a picture of a donkey or one of an elephant. "Some of the young ones say they're voting for a candidate because their moms told them who to vote for," Heubeck said. "But that's OK, because they're involved in the process. It means their parents are talking to them about it." The voting at Pope John is being held in the school library, where government students act as poll watchers and explain the voting procedure to students. The students are given a laminated instruction card, similar to the one given to voters at Sussex County polls on Election Day. The computer screen on which they vote is similar to the touch screens used in the county. Following the announcement of winners on Friday, all social studies classes will spend time analyzing the results, comparing how votes vary from one part of New Jersey to another, and from state to state, Morro said. Students in his government class will compare predictions based on polls with how the mock election turned out, as they learn about polling. Morro said he'd like to design an in-house mock election for the gubernatorial race next year, since the Youth Leadership Initiative doesn't hold elections for non-presidential races. Youth Leadership Initiative also offers an E-Congress, a program in which students draft legislation, serve on mock congressional committees and try to get their bill passed among students in a national forum, and a program called "A More Perfect Union," in which students act as campaign managers for a Senate candidate, as well as more than 40 lesson plans for civics classes. "We want teachers to have the resources to make it fun and valuable," Heubeck said.