Growing constituency: Children pick up the voting habit in mock elections for Bush, Gore

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 31A

It’s a campaign slogan that could win the stomachs of millions: “Vote for me – get free ice cream.”

What high-priced campaign adviser has put forth an idea as heartfelt or as true as the one proposed by Adam Gravitt, a fifth-grader at Northwood Hills Elementary?

Adam’s plan is just one of the many ideas being tossed around to get young people to the polls on Election Day. With voter turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds plummeting – only 12.1 percent voted in the 1998 elections – people are willing to try almost anything to reverse the trend.

For many North Texas schools, part of the answer involves bringing the political process into the classroom through mock elections. The idea is that children who become accustomed to casting a ballot in school will carry the habit into adulthood. Efforts range from the traditional (paper ballots stuffed into a shoebox) to the cutting edge (Internet elections with millions of voters and the latest in encryption technology).

At Northwood Hills, in the Richardson school district, students are casting ballots via their school Web site. On Wednesday, Texas Secretary of State Elton Bomer stopped by to offer encouragement.

“Without people voting, the system doesn’t work so good,” Mr. Bomer told an assembly in the school’s cafeteria. “When you are all 18 years old, are all of you going to vote?”

“Yes!” came the resounding reply.

But the children aren’t Mr. Bomer’s only target.

“I hope you all go home and talk to your parents about why it’s important they go vote on Tuesday,” he said. “Why is it important your parents vote?”

“So they can complain about the government!” responded fourth-grader Silvano Alvarez, to a chorus of giggles.

After the superintendent’s speech, several fifth- and sixth-graders cast ballots in the presidential race, with Gov. George W. Bush jumping out to a quick 5-2 lead. They also offered suggestions on how to end voter apathy.

Charles Shorter wants to build libraries and gyms open only to people who voted in the last election. Milly Arcovedo sees a cartoon based on the adventures of Voterooni, the Election Hero. Amy Stroth suggests having the presidential debates televised “on the popular channels” such as MTV, not just on the major networks. Aside from his ice-cream pledge, Adam Gravitt proposes a line of presidential dolls that say “Vote!” when squeezed.

Northwood Hills is far from the only school featuring a mock election this year. Since 1992, the secretary of state’s office has sponsored Project VOTE, an election-based curriculum now used in 101 school districts across Texas, including Dallas, Plano, Arlington, Duncanville, Garland and Grand Prairie. This year, results from mock elections held at the schools will be sent to Austin and released moments after the real polls close Tuesday.

In Irving, middle school students created an online database to handle and tally mock votes. More than 22,000 of the district’s 29,000 students have registered for the mock election, according to Margaret Watrous, the district’s coordinator of instructional technology.

Nationally, several large mock election groups, including the flagship National Student/Parent Mock Election, have joined forces behind an online initiative called Youth-e-Vote, which allows schoolchildren to vote online for president and other races. As of Wednesday, more than 1.1 million votes had been cast online. Youth-e-Vote will announce the results of this year’s presidential race Thursday on its Web site,