Jennings students get into the election spirit with mock presidential debate, vote | St. Louis Public Radio

Jennings students get into the election spirit with mock presidential debate, vote

Oct 18, 2016

Just because they’re too young to vote doesn’t mean that students at Jennings Junior High lack strong opinions about the presidential candidates.

At an assembly held at the district’s high school Tuesday, the students got to take part in a town-hall style mock debate, then cast ballots at a real electronic voting machine — if their credentials weren’t turned away.

A big part of the event was hearing about historical efforts to erode voting rights of African-Americans. The students were urged to make sure that anyone among their families and friends who is registered actually shows up at the polls on Nov. 8.

Jennings Superintendent Art McCoy put it this way: “Even though you can’t vote – yet – you can influence others. You will never know the impact that you have.”

Stand-ins for all four presidential candidates — Democrat Hillary Clinton, Republican Donald Trump, Libertarian Gary Johnson and the Green Party’s Jill Stein — sat at a table on stage, fielding questions from moderators and students in the audience. Topics ranged from Supreme Court choices to birtherism to Black Lives Matter to jobs to police violence to why anyone should vote for a third-party candidate.

“Trump” even got up and stood behind “Clinton” as she walked around the stage, mimicking how the real candidates moved at Washington University on Oct. 9. And when the candidates didn’t stop when their allotted time was up, the moderators let them know.

After the debate, the students lined up to cast ballots, though some were arbitrarily blocked from using the voting machine. That ploy was meant to reinforce efforts to undercut voting rights that have been tried since the end of the Civil War and continue today, the students were told.

Based on their reactions, the students leaned heavily toward Clinton, an impression they reinforced in interviews about the real standard bearers.

Credit Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio

To Devin Elkins, the difference between the debate performance of the two major candidates is stark:

“Donald Trump uses mostly opinions, and Hillary Clinton states facts and actually cares about the people.”

Added Taviah Crume:

“I think Hillary is a really good candidate for president, but Donald Trump, I’ve heard some of his comments, and I don’t think that it’s right for him to say that about African-Americans.”

Gerterius Wilson had this critique:

“I did see good traits in them, but some of the bad traits that I saw were based on them being immature. They kept rushing over each other to talk, and they kept going over the time limit instead of letting each other talk, instead of just being respectful to one another.”

His advice?

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“I would tell Trump to stop just stating opinions and stop being immature, and start stating facts if he wants to be treated seriously. I’d tell Hillary Clinton to just stay calm and level-headed and keep on doing what she’s doing because she pretty much has the election won already.”

The event concluded with an impassioned case against Amendment 6, on the Missouri ballot next month, from Denise Lieberman, of the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition. The proposed amendment would establish voters to present photo ID.

Lieberman urged the students to make the case to their parents that the amendment would hurt people who want to vote but may not have the documentation the amendment requires.

“People fought and died for our right to vote,” Lieberman said in an interview, “and in this nasty election cycle, it’s enough to make anyone feel disillusioned about voting. But voting itself is where our power lies, and voting itself is very, very important. We’re hoping to instill the importance of voting into the students today.”

She added that as they look forward to the time they can cast real ballots, the junior high students should realize that voting has a direct effect on their lives.

“These students in a few years will be voters,” Lieberman said. “And what we know is that when young people appreciate their role in the community, and that they have a role to play, that they have a voice, that that will turn into a lifelong commitment to civic engagement in their communities.

“Whether you are excited or not for the top of the ticket, voting is about all of the decisions and choices in our lives, from president on down to who sits on our school boards, and how our schools are run. Kids here care about how their schools are run, and so they should care about voting.”

Follow Dale on Twitter: @dalesinger