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It was a festive mood at McDowell Early College in Marion last Friday. A student, decked out in his band uniform, ran around a grassy hill between buildings, waving a Hillary Clinton sign before one of his friends playfully tackled him. “I told you you’d be attacked,” a substitute teacher watching the scene joked. “You’re at a Trump rally.”

McDowell Early College

In the 2012 presidential election, 50.39 percent of McDowell County went for Mitt Romney for president, with 48.35 percent going for Barack Obama, according to the McDowell County Board of Elections website. 

Of course, the students at McDowell Early College High School couldn’t vote in that election. And most of them can’t vote in this one either. But through an innovative program called First Vote NC, they are getting a chance to experience the process they will become a part of in a few short years.

dsc_0665Partnering with EdNC, Carolina K-12, and the NC Department of Public Instruction, First Vote NC (formerly Kids Voting NC) works with educators to get their students involved, engaged, and ready to participate in American democracy. The core elements include an online voter platform, project-based lesson plans, free enrollment in Turbo Vote, an exit poll survey, and a data analysis forum.

More than 200 high schools in 85 North Carolina counties have registered to be part of the new initiative. One of them is McDowell Early College High School.

Jessica Sutton, a social studies and seminar teacher at the school, is the one spearheading the voting that took place last Thursday and Friday. Though the results of the voting won’t come out until after the election is over, she said about 200 students had registered to vote, and she hoped for a turnout of about 150. Just as in the real election, Sutton was allowing same-day-registration for students who hadn’t gotten around to it ahead of time.

She decided early on that she wanted the election to be a learning moment for her students.

“Over the summer, I decided I was going to face the election head on. It was either tiptoe around it or just do it,” she said.

She wasn’t sure exactly how she was a going to incorporate the election into her lessons, however, until she learned about the First Vote NC program.

“Once I had that platform, it was the perfect segue into it,” she said.

In preparation for the elections, students mocked up information about all the candidates on the ballot. Outside of the classroom where the voting took place, the wall is decorated with various candidate names, positions, and party affiliations. That information is complied on a website. In addition, students previously presented to the whole school’s student body the campaign positions of both presidential candidates as well as critiques.

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On Thursday and Friday, a stream of students flowed into the classroom (the mock polling location) as their schedules allowed, casting their votes for races both national and local.

Lily Moore, a 14-year-old ninth grader said the First Vote NC experiment is good preparation for the real thing. And in preparing to vote, she’s learned more about why it’s vital to be informed.

“It’s kind of taught the importance of knowing all their characteristics and what they stand for and how important it is when you do vote,” she said.

And 17-year-old Ethan Park said he thinks the mock voting is as close to the real thing as you can get without actually voting for real. He turns 18 in May and says he’s looking forward to getting to cast his first real ballot.

“I like the right to vote,” he said. “It gives me a voice.”

For one student, senior Katlyn Buchanan, First Vote NC has changed her perspective on the election process altogether. She’s 18 and eligible to vote in this election.

“Before I didn’t really think I was going to vote because I didn’t know much about voting,” she said. “But now, after this, I know what to expect when I go.”

dsc_0620She said this experience has also made her think about local candidates more, whereas before she focused mostly only on the presidential race.

Mackenzie Silver, a 15-year-old 10th grader has more personal reasons for her interest in politics. Her uncle is Republican Rep. Josh Dobson, who represents McDowell, Avery, and Mitchell counties. Not only did Silver vote in the mock elections at McDowell Early College, she has also been volunteering at the local GOP headquarters.

She said she hopes to one day pursue state office, just like her uncle, and hopes that by volunteering in local politics, she can get an early start.

“I want to go ahead and get a foot in the door,” she said.

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Jessica Sutton

Sutton says she has high hopes for the mock elections at McDowell Early College and their influence on her student body.

“I hope they get practice, I hope they get excited about it, I hope that when they are old enough that they register and vote, and I hope they learn a little something about not just watching commercials on TV, and that there is a whole lot more information out there,” she said.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.