VOTES: A Brief Project History

Enthusiastic students at VOTES mock-election night

Low voter turnout is a persistent problem in what is supposed to be the greatest example of a democracy in the world, the United States.

Twenty-eight years ago, two teachers at Northfield Mount Hermon designed a project called VOTES (Voting Opportunities for Teens in Every State) to make politics more fun and interesting for their students while teaching them the importance of the voting process. They invited two schools from each state to participate in a nationwide high school mock election in which the winner would be declared just days before the general election. While mock elections are often held at high schools before a general election, the idea of 100 public and private schools — two from each state — participating in a one-day national election was an innovative and ambitious venture.

VOTES is not just a one-day event, however. At NMH, the project kicks off in September and includes a political film series, student debates and campaign rallies, an essay-writing contest, an issues poll, and speeches by political experts and guest politicians. The project culminates two days before the actual national election, when the school’s gymnasium is turned into a mock television studio and NMH students simulate election-night coverage as they announce the election results from the 100+ participating schools. Student anchorpeople, political analysts, interviewers, and campaign managers all play a part in bringing to life the electoral process in a fun, educational, and hands-on way.

And the results speak for themselves: In every VOTES election since its creation in 1988, voter turnout among the schools that sent their votes to NMH averaged between 75 and 80 percent—almost twice the national turnout average—totaling some 50,000-plus votes. Student voters successfully predicted the winner in each of the first four mock elections (as well as in 2008 and 2012), but were inaccurate only in predicting the winner of the 2004 presidential election.

VOTES Project co-creator Jim Shea has been a history teacher at NMH since 1986. Among other courses, perhaps the most popular he teaches are Government and Civil Liberties, and Foreign Policy. Jim has led students on study-abroad trips to Egypt and Turkey to learn more about the history and politics of other cultures.

"The VOTES Project has proven to be a remarkably effective and fun way of teaching our high school students about the electoral process in the United States. The hands-on mock election experience allows teens to be active participants in learning about the political process rather than merely passive observers. What better way is there to teach them to be thoughtful, engaged, and informed citizens in the future?" Shea said.

The project's other creator, Lorrie Byrom, taught at NMH for 41 years before her 2014 retirement. She taught a range of history courses and coordinated the student-taught Model United Nations (MUN) program. Lorrie’s MUN students traveled around the world to practice their political skills at international MUN simulations.

"VOTES effectively creates a collective sense of civic knowledge and involvement in a large number of students, most of whom will be eligible voters in the 2020 election," Byrom said. "The issues poll included on the VOTES ballot asks more than 50,000 students to think beyond the candidates themselves to the deeper issues facing our country. This differentiates the VOTES project from other student elections. Student participants develop a sophisticated knowledge about the American political climate, a knowledge that is clear when you hear them speak about the election issues. NMH continues to coordinate the project because of the remarkable growth it produces in students at our school and at the other schools that participate."

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