Thirteen-year-old Meghan Varner cast her vote for President George W. Bush.
Cindy Wu, also 13, voted for Sen. John Kerry.
“But we’re still friends,” Wu said, putting her arm around Varner. “I’ll forgive her, I guess.”
But Varner’s one vote didn’t seem to warrant forgiveness. It probably wasn’t the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Bush won the popular vote by a landslide Monday at Horizon Middle School in Spokane Valley, 254 to 99.
Forget that the middle-school students have about five years before they can vote in national, state and local elections. The young citizens joined the record number of Americans registering to vote in this year’s political circus by creating an election of their own.
The students have been working for weeks to prepare for Monday’s mock election, called “Hawk the Vote.”
The project – named after their mascot – included extensive research, campaigning, decorating and debates. The election process filtered into all classrooms and all subjects.
“It’s all anybody has been talking about,” Varner said.
Algebra classrooms turned into a study of the Electoral College; social studies and English classes into campaign headquarters. Instead of artwork, political campaigns littered the walls in the hallways.
“In just a few short years, these kids are the ones who are going to have the chance to change things,” said Mark Weis, one of the teachers who organized the project. “It’s important they understand how important it is to be informed.
“It’s scary to think about how many people vote without making an informed decision.”
Horizon students were divided into 22 states, or each first-period class. Each “state” was assigned two senators, and they had to figure out how many electoral votes each state was given based on the number of students in the class.
Students went through an official registration process, signing up at tables set up during the lunch hour. Proof of identification came in the form of an ASB card.
Out of 460 students in the school, 381 registered to vote, and 355 actually voted on Monday.
While the popular vote showed the students favoring Bush, Kerry supporters were hopeful that Monday night’s homework assignment could change that. The problem of the week in algebra asked the students to predict, in Tim Russert style, how many electoral votes were needed, while showing all work, of course.
“I think it will be fun to compare our final results to the real election,” said Ashley Henderson, 13.
In addition to the presidential race, the seventh-grade students voted in the Washington state governor and Senate races, and on education Initiative 884. Eighth-grade students voted in those races, plus the 5th Congressional District and Referendum 55.”We worked really hard to be unbiased, to present the students with as much general information out there as possible,” said teacher Karen Kielbon.
The students watched a video about the history of the electoral process, and about the freedom to choose.
“We talked about how we don’t have to vote, if we don’t want to,” Kielbon said. “We talked about understanding the parties, and if you don’t know the candidate, it’s at least important to know about the party issues.”
On Oct. 25, the students hosted a debate between two members of the community – Mike Fitzsimmons, a political analyst from KXLY, and Jerry Hughes, a professor of political science from Gonzaga University.
Fitzsimmons stood in as Bush, and Hughes as Kerry. Students asked the candidates five questions, ranging from health care, the economy and Iraq.
And, in typical debate fashion, the two candidates took every opportunity to get under the skin of their opponent.
“If Mr. Bush was in ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ he’d be looking for a heart as well as a brain,” Hughes said in response to a question about education.
That solicited “Ooooooohs” from the crowd of teenagers.
Students said they felt the candidates avoided answering their questions.
Dylan Peters asked a question about 9/11, and what plan the candidates have to prevent future attacks similar to the terrorist attacks of 2001.
“They didn’t answer, and it seemed like they didn’t even have a plan,” Peters said.
Kielbon said some students changed their vote after the debates.
Some students said they voted the way their parents would. Spokane Valley has been a Republican stronghold in recent elections.
After Monday’s vote, students stood in the halls outside the library discussing their decisions with the same emotion adults often do when talking politics.
“I just get so angry,” Henderson said. “It’s hard.”
The topic that divided the Bush and Kerry supporters more than any other was the war in Iraq, the students agreed.
“I think people have a stronger opinion now because of the war,” Henderson said.
“Because (Bush) sent like 80,000 troops to Iraq when the war was really in Afghanistan,” Jeff Brandle, 13, argued.
Henderson shot back, “I just think it’s dumb that people jump on Bush for the way he handled it – it wasn’t an easy decision. It isn’t like he just woke up one day and said like ‘I think we should go to war.’ “
“All I’m saying is that he made too many mistakes,” Brandle said. “That’s all.”