My fellow students …

Jefferson students cast votes in simulated election

By ERIC STEVICK and JIM HALEY

Herald Writers

This just in: Jefferson prefers George W. Bush for president, Gary Locke for governor and pizza over hamburgers.

Thursday’s vote at Jefferson Elementary School, in the Eastmont neighborhood of the Everett School District, followed weeks of student study and classroom discussions and months of planning by teachers.

The election season at Jefferson was refreshing for those looking for a different perspective on the issues.

Spend some time in a fourth-grade classroom and the concerns are not about taxes, Social Security or prescription drugs.

If given five minutes with the presidential candidates, James Carriere would ask them how long it takes plastic to decompose and other pointed questions about the waste stream.

Calley Yeadon would tell the candidates that the country would be better off "with more veterinarians and pastureland."

The need to preserve open space was a recurring theme among students in teacher Stacy McHarness’ classroom. Many have lost favorite play areas, having seen their neighborhood woods and vacant lots developed into homes during their lifetimes.

What issues they didn’t raise may be a commentary on their ages and the era in which they are growing up, McHarness said. There was no talk about national security or the economy, but plenty of concern about Internet safety and the environment.

Teachers started discussing the election before the school year began. Trish Coan, a fifth-grade teacher, is a neighbor of Scott Konopasek, the Snohomish County elections manager, and the two chatted about the possibilities.

With the help of the county auditor’s office, Thursday’s election was a close replication of the real thing.

Students have registered to vote in recent weeks. They have heard fellow students describe their preferred candidates’ platforms. They have studied the voters’ guide. Some watched the presidential debates with their parents.

The auditor’s office provided voter registration forms, special grade-appropriate ballots, polling booths and even "I voted" stickers. The ballots grew increasingly sophisticated based on the children’s age. In kindergarten, for instance, it was merely a choice between pizza and hamburgers.

Sam Shafer, a fifth-grader, mixed political parties in voting for Al Gore for president and John Carlson for governor.

"I looked at what each one said, and I thought Al Gore would be better," she said. "I didn’t care for either the pizza or the hamburger, though."

Merick Roragen cast his vote for Bush. His fear: "Gore could take everyone’s guns, but I don’t think he will take my BB gun."

Some students polled their parents, hoping for guidance, only to find out that Mom and Dad had different choices for president.

Konopasek said he was impressed with the enthusiasm and turnout Thursday.

"All we did was help the teachers plan and organize an idea they came up with themselves," he said.

For a long time the auditor’s office has thought about putting together a voter education curriculum in the schools.

"This is a foundation for what we want to build into an ongoing program," Konopasek said.

He said there are a lot of people under the age of 25 who don’t vote for a variety of reasons. Maybe it’s disillusionment. Perhaps it’s a fear of the unknown or not knowing how the process works, he said.

Voter education at an early age "takes a lot of the mystery and mystique out of the process," Konopasek said. "It can be intimidating, so we try to make it a common, everyday thing."

The office also hosted several field trips by schools this election season and is following a youth vote program in the Arlington School District.

McHarness believes the lessons in democracy were worthwhile.

"We were just standing around talking about how much learning there was," McHarness said. "I think the impression was pretty heavy on our students. The experience is under the belt, and we hope that going to the polls when they are 18 won’t be a scary thing."

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