Mock elections in high school spur interest in the process

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Josh Simmons, a 17-year-old high school senior with a January birthday, is just shy of being old enough to vote in next week's election. Instead, he voted Thursday.

His choice for president: Barack Obama.

The reason: a family that votes mostly Democratic and an AP economics class that made him think Mr. Obama is the better candidate for the next four years.

His vote won't count in Pennsylvania, but it did count in Upper St. Clair, where the high school held a mock election during the school day Thursday. More than 600 ballots were cast for seven races, including president, U.S. senator, attorney general and state treasurer.

"Mostly, it's just to get kids excited about the election and about politics," said Elizabeth Vargo, 17, a junior who is president of the school's law club, which holds the mock elections every two years.

Voting in mock elections can be the "foundation of a life-long habit" for students, said Rachel Willis, executive director of Kids Voting USA, a voting advocacy organization based in Topeka, Kan. "It really gives children the opportunity to learn about voting and take the mystery out of that process."

Ron Sivillo, an Upper St. Clair social studies teacher who oversees the mock elections, said the school has been holding them at least as long as he has been there, which is 14 years.

Upper St. Clair tends to trend Republican, and the same has been true for its mock elections. The last presidential election, however, was an outlier. The final vote produced a victory for Mr. Obama, who received 509 votes, compared to the 458 votes received by his Republican opponent, John McCain.

In years past, Upper St. Clair has been part of a statewide mock student election sponsored by the Pennsylvania Department of State. That program dates to 1988 and continued through 2010.

Mr. Sivillo said he was surprised this year when he called the department and was told the program had been ended due to budgetary issues. The website used for the program through 2010 no longer exists online.

But Nick Winkler, director of public relations for the Department of State, said the mock student election program is still in place. Now, he said, votes are being tabulated by the National Student Mock Election, a civic education project.

Pennsylvania has participated in the National Student Mock Election for 32 years, since it was created, said a spokeswoman affiliated with the election project. This year, there are 450 classrooms registered to vote in Pennsylvania.

Mr. Sivillo said he had not been notified about the change, and that Upper St. Clair's votes would not be part of any larger total. But for the record, Thursday's Upper St. Clair vote was Mr. Romney, 278, and Mr. Obama, 217. Another 139 votes were cast for two third-party candidates.

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Kaitlynn Riely: or 412-263-1707.


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