Mock the Vote

Barack Obama may have retaken the presidency last night, but he faced another daunting challenge yesterday: the mock election at the middle school where Josh Fischel teaches sixth grade.

The first and last Republican I voted for was Ronald Reagan. It was 1984, I was in kindergarten, and I’d never heard of Walter Mondale. I don’t remember the school-wide outcome of the mock election at my elementary school, I’m sure Reagan cleaned up with the 6-and-under crowd; we picked the name we knew.

By the time fourth grade rolled around, we had been jaded by politics. I recall standing in my bus line at dismissal and rolling my eyes with my friends at the notion of Vice-President Quayle, who seemed dimmer than we were, probably because his spelling was our only measure of the man.

On Tuesday, I will vote at my local precinct and then I will drive to the school where I teach sixth grade now. One homeroom of seventh graders — sage adolescents, all — is conducting our mock election. They have spent the last several weeks making presentations to the middle school (fifth through eighth grade) in support of each of the candidates: Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, and Jill Stein.

Stein’s squad consists of three boys — Eli, William, and Adam — who carry a giant green crayon up to the front of our assembly hall when they present. They are easily the most entertaining of the bunch, and thus the most memorable. For one of their ads, Eli repeated “Jill Stein” in the style of movie trailer demigod Don LaFontaine. Their group is smaller than the Romney and Obama teams and they are given fewer opportunities to speak to help the students understand the difficulties of running a third party campaign without the financial resources of a Perot or a Bloomberg.

The Obama group has been the most tentative so far; I think it’s because they’re likely more personally invested in his victory, though it could also be that the kids who are more willing to take academic risks chose candidates with whom they disagree or know less about. Neta, precocious and quietly passionate about Obama’s re-election, is dressed in a non-descript pullover and gently flumps into the easy chair in her teacher’s office. “I follow politics, because I really want to be a politician when I grow up,” she told me. Were she old enough to vote, the one issue that would influence her choice would be women’s rights. “I know the economy is a big issue, but there’s a lot of stuff happening to women — being able to make their own choices, equal pay. That’s part of the reason I want to run, because women are equal to men, of course.”

Other students named the economy as the most important issue to them. It was difficult to tell whether Gaby and Sibley, both from the Romney camp, speaking over each other and together simultaneously as adolescent girls sometimes do, were telling me what they’d learned or what they personally believed. Gaby said, “I’ve met some people who feel strongly for Obama because of social issues, and they can’t get past that. You should really focus on what’s most important for the nation right now, and then we can focus on other things like clean energy, abortion, or gay marriage.”

The Stein supporters were all in agreement that a convincing jobs plan would be their motivating factor, too. “Probably the economy and jobs and stuff,” said Eli.

When Obama was elected, all of the students running the election were in third grade. Sibley said, “We watched the inauguration in class. It was fun.” But when they started doing research in anticipation of the election, they weren’t particularly well-informed. “I didn’t even know who Paul Ryan was,” Sibley said. “My dad always talks about politics at dinner, and he supports Romney. A lot of the kids said they don’t like Romney, and I wanted to know why they didn’t and my dad did.”

I asked students where they got their political news, especially now that they’ve had to follow it. Neta’s parents have subscriptions to the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times — paper versions! — and she reads the Times, “the section about the election and the race. I don’t get a lot of my information online.” Other students listened to NPR sometimes, watch the news, read magazines, and listen to their parents. I asked the Green Party stalwarts what event they thought had had the greatest impact on the campaign. They gave the debates a 9 out of 10 on that scale. “Romney did really well, and then it was more even,” said Adam. He also thought the conventions mattered. “The Republican one had a big influence, because it messed up their campaign for a while — the whole Clint Eastwood thing.” Romney’s comments about the 47% rated a 7 on our scale, but the attack in Benghazi got only “a 2 or a 3. I don’t know much about it,” said William.

What have the campaigns done wrong? Neta suggested, “Obama should have been more aggressive. He hasn’t taken it as seriously as he should have.” Sibley said, “Romney has a really straightforward plan for the economy, so what if he had an equally straightforward plan on foreign policy and education?”

The universal prediction is that Obama will win, but all of them said it would be extremely close. Sibley and Gaby think Romney will win the popular vote, but Obama will take the electoral vote.

Mr. Langdon, the teacher whose homeroom is behind all this, has conducted mock elections with his classes for the last four presidential elections. Mock elections are funny things; they spark latent interest in politics for those who see themselves as tomorrow’s leaders. They create low-information voters out of no-information voters. “It’s really hard to figure out what’s true or not,” Gaby observed, noting that they’d relied a lot on Romney’s website, which was probably a little biased. Students, like some of the electorate, are swayed by entertainment. Thus, Jill Stein will have won an outsize proportion of the votes at our school when everything is tallied because her campaign has performed credible rap and reggae songs about her. Our school is progressive, and kids have tended to gravitate towards what’s new and different; Ralph Nader did well in 2000, for instance.

Mock elections can be made into a big deal, which is kind of neat. The state of Washington posted their statewide results over the weekend, as did California (you can look at California’s results by school; at El Sol Science and Arts Academy in Orange County, Roseanne Barr — yes, that Roseanne Barr — defeated Mitt Romney by two votes; she’s the candidate for the Peace and Freedom Party). Kentucky’s results are here and Montana’s are here.

I doubt the results show much. If children had the right to vote, Obama and Romney would only amplify their victories; the outcome would not be switched anywhere but in swing states, where the more idealistic and rebellious high school bloc would probably push things in Obama’s direction, as in Florida. Certainly, there seems to be little correlation between mock election results and later voting inclinations, either in terms of turnout or in terms of party preference. There’s that saying that, if you’re young and conservative, you have no heart, and if you’re old and liberal, you have no brain. May this election teach us that everyone has a heart and a brain, and that, sometimes, we can use both at once.

Photo by Jose Kevo

Josh Fischel lives near Boston with his wife and their dog. He teaches sixth grade humanities, and has been published in The New York Times, The Believer, and Bean Soup.