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Cottonwood Heights Journal

Brighton High's American Problems students hold mock presidential election

Mar 01, 2018 10:00AM ● By Julie Slama

American Problems students Bri Ingles and Daniel Jimenez talk to constituents while awaiting the votes to be counted at Brighton's mock presidential election. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

The vote was 75-72 in favor of presidential candidate Bri Ingles when her classmate and opponent, Brighton High senior Daniel Jimenez, demanded a recount.

It was the end of a two-month-long process where Brighton High’s American Problems students learned about the government and the electoral process. During this time, 140 students formed two political parties. Each party held its own convention where students created a party platform and selected a candidate to run in the mock presidential election on Jan. 25.

“The mock election helps make the conventions more realistic, because the voters of the mock election come from the greater public, so students must consider issues that are greater than their teenage worlds,” said teacher Aaron Hadfield, who co-teaches the program with Ernest Pulliam. “In addition to giving our students experience with the democratic process, the mock election also gives participants a keen insight into the mind of the next generation of voters, because the students themselves create the platforms.”

About 150 members of the audience heard speeches from each party’s elected candidates before posing questions for each candidate. The audience, age 18 and up and not enrolled in the course, then cast its ballots to decide the winner. At stake: an approved assignment where the entire class, or party, receives an A.

“We had to campaign to win the primary before going against one another,” Ingles said. “I was excited and nervous. It took a lot of preparation and studying, but I feel I got a good experience understanding real-life democracy.”

Daniel said that it was intense as adults asked questions about his platform.

“I didn’t always agree with what my party stood for, so it was hard,” he said. “I felt I had to sacrifice my morals and compromise to help the party. Through not always agreeing, I can now understand how our government can shut down.”

Hadfield said each student researched topics and wrote a plank, which he graded. Then, they were to decide on their party’s platform, which at times students debated whether to amend or not, thus narrowing down their platforms just by how much time the process took.

“They grew frustrated, but in the end, they came to a better understanding how important that process is,” he said. “When they hear people say they believe in democracy, these students will understand the system is a conflict and a compromise, not harmony and accord. Through understanding it, they can appreciate it.”

The questions asked ranged from their plans on education, immigration, environment, health care, military spending and veterans’ benefits, Social Security and more. 

Jimenez fielded questions about his stand on the federal government requiring a 50-mile-per-gallon average vehicle fleet for all auto manufacturers while requiring oil producers to reduce emissions by 10 percent over the next four years. At one point, candidates were asked about support from special interest groups.

“I do not support big oil. I didn’t support special interest groups and sell out like my opponent,” Ingles said.

Jimenez fought back by referring to his opponent’s stand on legalizing marijuana, pointing out she called upon the federal government to reclassify low-level drug possession crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.

“My opponent is saying narcotics such as heroin should be treated the same as painkillers,” he said.

The voting process was previously done at Westminster College where college students would listen and vote.

“That platform worked, but now with inviting the community, it simulates the political parties’ process better. The more motivation and influence these students have can affect the outcome,” Hadfield said, adding that when the Utah Office of Education changed graduation requirements about 15 years ago, he reworked the curriculum to meet government class requirements and also award students with an elective credit.

This was the program’s third simulation. Each simulation has a lesson, he said.

“The first simulation is ‘your society matters.’ The second is for them to learn individual rights. The third is the democratic process, and the fourth, where our democracy fits in the world,” Hadfield said.

The first simulation at the start of the school year was a two-week experience living in a totalitarian society.

“They grew hyper-sensitive to their rights, and learned they had no say in what went on since the power was equal,” he said. “The first simulation is important that they learn it is not a democracy and it helps prepare them for this simulation.”

Then, they learned about civil rights through a mock Supreme Court where they looked at laws, actions, violations and previous court cases.

“Our system has checks against the majority; it’s not a pure democracy,” Hadfield said.

He said a fourth simulation will be held this spring where students will learn foreign policy and how the United States fits into the world.

“We’ll have students representing blocks of countries and bring folks together over an international crisis. They’ll have to decide what they can and can’t do and the challenges faced with both sides of the issue,” he said.

The program is designed to give students a better understanding, Hadfield said.

“It’s life changing and students retain what they’ve learned, not just the outcome of the election,” he said.

Jimenez will likely retain what he learned. He finally conceded after a third recount.