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NMH-organized mock election project aims to inspire teenage political interest

Northfield Mount Hermon seniors Philippa Haven and Douglas Fischer work on campaign posters for third-party candidates Jill Stein and Gary Johnson, respectively. The student-run campaigns are a part of the VOTES national mock student election project, created and organized by NMH faculty. (Recorder/Chris Shores)

Northfield Mount Hermon seniors Philippa Haven and Douglas Fischer work on campaign posters for third-party candidates Jill Stein and Gary Johnson, respectively. The student-run campaigns are a part of the VOTES national mock student election project, created and organized by NMH faculty. (Recorder/Chris Shores) Purchase photo reprints »

GILL — Northfield Mount Hermon School history teacher Jim Shea can still distinctly remember one lesson he taught in 1988 about the presidential election and electoral college.

“I (was) looking at a bunch of blank stares,” he said. “(The students) didn’t really have an interest in it whatsoever. It was just another thing that they needed to learn.”

Frustrated, he headed to the history office after class and vented to colleague Lorrie Byrom. That conversation began the creation of a national mock election involving NMH and 100 schools — both private and public — from every state in the country.

Twenty-four years later, the Voting Opportunities for Teenagers in Every State (VOTES) project is gearing up for its seventh presidential election — one that will involve 135 schools and is projected to have at least 50,000 teenage voters.

NMH will host student-run campaigns, online classroom exercises, movie nights and debate-viewing sessions — all meant to inspire and excite students in the Nov. 6 presidential election.

In the week leading up to the election, participating schools will host mock elections among their high school student body. NMH will collect the results and reveal winners during a election night at the school on Sunday, Nov. 4.

For the event — which will be broadcast online and on campus radio station WNMH — the gymnasium will be transformed into an election newsroom set, manned by student anchors, reporters, analysts and stage crew.

And like the presidential election, the VOTES election will be tallied using the electoral college system.

In Massachusetts, total votes will be added from four participating schools — NMH, Phillips Andover Academy, Pioneer Valley Regional High School and Williston Northampton School — and 11 electoral votes will be given to the candidate who receives the most.

VOTES elections have successfully predicted the outcome five of the last six elections. The lone exception was in 2004, when students across the country elected John Kerry over incumbent George W. Bush.

Educating students

A new addition to the project this year is use of the online tool StudySync in history classes.

StudySync outlines a different national topic each week — such as the Keystone pipeline, universal health care or how to reduce national debt — and presents background information in addition to presidential candidates’ personal stances.

Students from any of the VOTES participating schools can vote in a poll and submit short response posts of 140 characters or less. They can then rate and review other student posts, which allows them to learn how different parts of the country view certain issues, said teacher Erik Chaput.

“This platform has provided us with a way to quickly get kids engaged ... get them a sense of what issues are on table,” he said. “They may only be (teenagers), but they’re certainly becoming political active and forming thoughts on their own.”

Earlier this school year, Shea selected students to lead on-campus campaigns for the four presidential candidates: President Barack Obama, Republican challenger Mitt Romney, Green Party candidate Jill Stein and Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson.

The campaigns advocate for their candidate through tabling, yard signs, banners, posters and political buttons. An on-campus debate will be held on Wednesday, Oct. 31, the day before NMH’s Nov. 1 mock election.

Lily Kitfield-Vernon, a 16-year-old Northfield native, is helping to lead a team of 50 to campaign for the president.

“The economy is a very important thing, but I also think that education is extremely important,” said Kitfield-Vernon. “(Obama) has done a lot (for that) in the past and I think that he will continue to do a lot in the future.”

James Neary — a 17-year-old from Keene, N.H. and campaign manager for the Romney ticket — said his team faces an uphill battle since NMH is a liberal school in a liberal state.

“A lot of the students and maybe some faculty are somewhat misinformed about not just Romney but about the Republican Party in general,” he said. “They have already made their judgments based on things they haven’t experienced or researched, so we’re just trying to ... educate people, let them make their own decision.”

And then there are the campaign teams for the Green and Libertarian parties — groups of students advocating for candidates many on campus never knew existed.

“There’s more than two choices besides Mitt Romney and Barack Obama,” said 17-year-old Douglas Fischer of New York City, who is advocating for Johnson. “You can choose someone else besides those two.”

“It’s hard because people say, ‘Oh I don’t want to throw away my vote for a third-party candidate,’” said Philippa Haven, a 16-year-old from Lynn.

Haven didn’t know much about Stein when she joined the Green Party campaign team last month. But now she has come to appreciate the candidate and the issues she stands for.

That political education and involvement is exactly what Shea and Byrom hoped for when they created VOTES.

Excitement about the project has increased each election season, said Shea. At the first organization meeting back in September, 175 students showed up — more than 25 percent of the total student body.

“It has gotten kids doing things ... they are the anchors, the political analysts, the voters,” said Shea. “(They) feel it’s something bigger than NMH, they’re part of something national.”

For more information, go to: www.votes2012.org.

You can reach Chris Shores at:

cshores@recorder.com

or 413-772-0261, ext. 264

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