Ochoa Middle School students cast ballots in mock election

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldNovember 7, 2012 

The polls were a little chaotic Tuesday at Ellen Ochoa Middle School. Some voters had to be helped figuring out which line to get in to register for their ballot. Vote counters were falling behind in getting a tally of results, and there always was the challenge of making sure teacher ballots were kept separate from those of students.

"You have to tell the teachers to write 'staff' at the top of their ballot," Monica Soto reminded one of her eighth-grade students manning a registration table.

With the rest of the nation deciding Tuesday who would be leading the nation, as well as their state and local governments, students in Soto's classes conducted their own election for U.S. president and Washington governor, as well as a state initiative on charter schools.

Soto and her students said that while the election has provided valuable lessons on issues and politics, it also was critical in teaching the election process.

"It will help out in the future when we vote," said 13-year-old Ernesto Gamino. "It's important to vote."

Initially, only eighth-grade students were set to participate, but Soto, who teaches history and language arts, said it was later decided to include all 966 students -- and about 80 staff and faculty.

Rather than a simple popular vote, language arts classes were assigned a state or two in the electoral college based on their number of students. And along with the presidential and gubernatorial races and charter school initiative, students were asked to rank their top two campaign issues.

Preparations took two months, and Soto spent the past two weeks teaching lessons about politics, the issues and the election process. They watched all the presidential debates, as well as a gubernatorial debate between Democrat Jay Inslee and Republican Rob McKenna.

And those lessons made it out of the classroom.

"Especially today and yesterday, they've been talking about it a lot in the hallway, during (sports) practice," Soto said. "It's been interesting to hear them talk about it."

Thirteen-year-old Eric Gomez, who helped register students throughout the day, said a lot of students thought seriously about their vote and Soto's classroom had an air of importance throughout the day.

"It's kind of a big deal, that's why there's so much to vote on," he said.

Not that running the polls didn't have its challenges. Zaida Guzman, 13, said some students were messing up when writing their name down to register. Soto and other teachers had to stop students a few times from politicking for a particular candidate while near a student filling out a ballot.

And with as many as 60 students in the classroom at a time, you sometimes had to fight for space.

"Everybody gets really crowded," Ernesto said.

The students said they knew their vote wouldn't be part of the actual election going on Tuesday. The school's map of electoral college votes also wasn't even close to reality, with early results indicating only Missouri voting for Mitt Romney.

Eric said he heard some students say they weren't going to vote as they didn't see a reason to bother. He said it's fine for them to feel that way, but he and other students said their votes mattered.

"You actually get to have an idea of how the constitution works," Eric said. "You get to be a part of it."

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