Mock debates for a mock election

Votes: Westminster High School students are participating in a nationwide program.

October 22, 2004|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,SUN STAFF

In a rousing declaration, the Republican presidential candidate asserted his stand against embryonic stem cell research because it means "we have to kill someone."

The candidate's impassioned delivery won thunderous applause from a crowd of about 900 students in Westminster High School's auditorium and brought many to their feet.

"There is nothing wrong with adult stem cells; we don't have to kill anybody" to harvest them for research, said Joel Ready, a 16-year-old sophomore, as he pumped his fists into the air and maintained that several diseases have been cured through advances in adult stem cell research.

His Democratic opponent was unfazed, instead leveling a spirited retort in his support of embryonic stem cell research.

"Why do people have all of these diseases if you've cured them?" asked Ryan Alnut, a 16-year-old junior, as he argued that adult stem cells have scientific limitations.

The lively exchange occurred during one of two mock presidential debates held for the school's nearly 2,000 students.

Westminster High's students are participating in a national student mock election sponsored by the Youth Leadership Initiative, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization based at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics that seeks to increase civic awareness. As part of that effort, the center provides free instructional resources, including lesson plans, to schools.

Nationwide, students have been able to vote online in the mock election since Monday. At Westminster High, where voting began yesterday, students are urged to vote in the school's media center at one of three designated computers during lunch periods.

Students in Baltimore, Carroll, Anne Arundel, Harford and Howard counties, as well as Baltimore City, are among those participating in the program.

"The mock election program gets the most attention," said Lea Brown, the YLI's director of instruction. "Our hope is that by the time they go to vote, they are educated and have issues that motivate them."

For young people, she said, interest in an issue is often the pathway to voting.

"When a young person who spends time on the bay fishing or sailing and then they see there is pollution ... that makes them care about the environment and then about the candidates," she said. "We don't look at voting as `vote because it's your civic duty' because kids get enough of people telling them what to do."

At Westminster High's debates yesterday, eight students represented the two candidates for president. Jeff McConville, 16, Jacob Kuperstock, 17, Andrew Carter, 15, and Ready posed as Republican President Bush, while Rob Holthause, 17, Gary Toth, 16, Aaron Luce, 16, and Alnut acted as Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry.

Each student fielded questions that had been submitted by students on four issues: the war, the economy, education and biomedical ethics.

Students said yesterday that they were impressed with the depth of the discussion about the issues and were even reconsidering their positions after hearing from both sides.

"Before, I was very unfamiliar with stem cell research and health care [issues], but I was very moved by the way the Bush side addressed them," said senior Brian Lawn, 17. "I was more toward Kerry, but now I'm not sure."

Megan Lynch, 16, a junior, said the "heated debate" had especially influenced her opinion of stem cell research.

"I was more for Kerry, but I feel the Bush side was well represented," she said, adding that her best friend's father died of a disease that could have benefited from medical advances in stem cell research.

Although Lawn and Lynch said they will vote in the mock election this week, neither wanted to divulge his or her choice. But Lynch said she is eager to find out next Friday which candidate will be the students' pick and how other schools voted.

YLI organizers said that nearly 3,000 students in Maryland had cast votes as of yesterday, but that they expect a surge in ballots next week. They expect nearly 1 million students to vote nationwide by the time polls close at 7 p.m. Thursday. National and statewide results will be posted online at on Oct. 29.

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