Students around state set to cast ballots in mock election

As mail-in ballots travel through the postal service and Delawareans plan to arrive at the polls in early November, students across the state also will cast their ballots this year through a mock 2020 election.

“For the most part, we talk about schools being places that are oriented toward preparing students for college, for career. Some people will say life,” said Fran O’Malley, a policy scientist in the Institute for Public Administration at UD. “Part of our job is to prepare the next generation of citizens for living in a democracy where they have opportunities to govern themselves, partially, but also through elected representatives.”

It’s more for many educators, however, than their students clicking a button to cast a vote. It’s teaching about their government and students’ role in it, even during a polarized election cycle.

For nearly 20 years, students have been able to cast their ballot in a mock election. The Democracy Project, of the University of Delaware, is collaborating with the Delaware Department of Elections and the Social Studies Coalition of Delaware to run the election.

“This is something that has become a tradition in Delaware,” he said.

Schools across the state are able to participate. When students in grades four to 12 log on Oct. 29 and 30, they’ll see a screen that shows their local candidates’ photos, names and parties, as well as the presidential election slate. They’ll enter a student code, which restricts them to voting only once — “Hopefully, we’re not going to have voter fraud,” Mr. O’Malley noted — and the students will select their votes by clicking on a circle next to their preferred candidate’s name.

As students log on, Mr. O’Malley said they’ll be able to disaggregate what grades students are in.

The goal is to make the interface as unbiased as possible. They select images that the candidates post themselves; they keep the “ballot” page as neutral as they can.

Through this, they want to “generate enthusiasm” and make the election process exciting.

The student mock election results will be released Nov. 2, the day before the general election.

“We want to release the results the day before so it is an incentive for them watching the (real) results as they play out on the day they have off when the general election takes place,” he said.

In Appoquinimink School District, 32 lessons will take students through how government affects its citizens, how citizens can affect their government, the power of voting, the electoral college, redistricting — and more.

“The idea is that democracy doesn’t work if you don’t have educated citizens,” said Mario Tiberi, social studies specialist for Appoquinimink School District. “We’re trying to create self-motivated citizens so they’re interested in becoming informed, and participating in elections once they leave the classroom.”

The curriculum introduces students to the candidates in their area, by combing through their websites and reading their platforms.

“The students are going to be doing some homework on both local and national candidates,” he said. “That’s a lot more important than them actually pushing the button, because they’re learning the skills of what it means to be an effective citizen in a democracy.”

Capital School District ramps up education around voting during an election year, but the foundations are laid as early as elementary school.

“We definitely, especially this year, we’re talking about the voting rights, the candidates’ issues, talking about the importance of the vote, and getting out there and voting,” said Mary Murrian, who is coordinating the mock election for Capital. “And I think that the process, too, just — how does that happen; what does that look like? Especially with this year, with the new system of everybody mailing in their votes if they want versus going in person.”

There are skills that go hand-in-hand with learning about candidates and general education — critical reading, constructing an argument, etc., said Cathy Schrieber, who is also working with the mock election in Capital.

“There are definitely things that tie across all those content areas and those are things that we are actually teaching our students all year long,” she said. “We really want them to be critical readers and writers and be able to digest and analyze various media platforms.”

Capital is focused on “student voice,” Ms. Schrieber said.

“And students being leaders of their own learning, so that is something that we focus on all the time, but I think this really is a great time … to revisit this idea of every voice counts. It’s important for all of us to be aware and contribute to the discussion,” she said.

It goes without saying that politics can be polarized, especially in this election, with tensions especially high amidst a global pandemic. “The hard part, for any teacher, is teaching these skills without getting into some of the more difficult discussions, especially in a more polarized election,” Mr. Tiberi said. “This is a testament to the teachers who do this because it’s not easy.”

The goal is to give students a safe place to voice their opinions and thoughts.

“That’s what our goal is, in all the districts I work with,” he said. “When we’re picking lessons and when teachers are doing trainings on this, the number one thing is that we’re giving students a voice and a place to have discussions that they’re hearing about, but at the same time to introduce them to this process, and the importance of taking part in their civic responsibility.”

Ms. Murrian said the teachers are often able to grapple with giving skills without personal feelings on a subject.

“I think [teachers] have a good handle on just promoting the facts and also giving kids the resources to go to find out their own information,” she said.

The district has put an emphasis on equity work, Ms. Schrieber added.

“We’ve been doing these kinds of things for the last several years across the district — just really thinking about how are we ensuring that idea of equity and culturally responsive practices across our district?” she said. “I think that that has helped put our teachers in a place where they are feeling more comfortable being able to support those conversations in their classrooms.”

Teachers — certainly those who teach history and social studies — are confronted with numerous difficult discussions: what’s going on in society, politics, religion, war.

Ultimately, Mr. Tiberi said, the hope is school will make students aware of the world around them and give them the skills to talk about it.

“I think this is where they learn to have educated, professional discussions,” he said.

But, like everything else for the past several months, COVID-19 has had its impact.

“Having these discussions over a Zoom classroom is a little bit different than having a controlled setting in the classroom, but everybody seems to be up for the challenge and excited,” he said.

Mr. O’Malley noted that voting is a small piece of what civics education does.

“At this particular moment in time, it is the biggest piece of it,” he said. “So we’re taking advantage of one of those teachable moments, and trying to generate enthusiasm, to not only get students excited about becoming informed and participating, even though it’s in a simulated session, but also to develop an understanding of how to vote, what the process is like, and hopefully inspire them to continue it as a lifelong habit.”