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Election Leaves Students in State of Suspense

Florida returns offer unique lesson in political drama.

November 10, 2000|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

No one expected this much confusion. Not the presidential candidates. Not the political historians. And certainly not the students in Lynn Stoldt's eighth-grade social studies class.

Their Tuesday homework assignment was to watch election returns and color each state on a map of the United States red or blue, according to whether it went for George W. Bush or Al Gore. All went well until they got to Florida. "They first said Florida went to Bush. Then it went to Gore. Then it went back to Bush," said Alex Parker, 12, one of Stoldt's students at Vista Verde Middle School in Irvine. "Then they did a recount.

"We had to keep crossing it out and recolor and keep recoloring and I was just confused," he said.

Some anxious students even called Stoldt at home: "I can't finish this, what am I going to do? Can I use Wite-Out?"

To Stoldt, whose class was winding up an intense three-week mock campaign of its own, the dramatic and confusing cliffhanger couldn't have come at a better time. Now she could drive home her lessons about the electoral process, campaigning and the suddenly spectacularly obvious fact that every vote counts.

Here, in a scene that was surely repeated in classrooms all over the nation, political theories, potential scenarios and textbook lessons were springing dramatically--and teachably--to life. "It was perfect," Stoldt said Wednesday in her red, white and blue classroom, surrounded by a whirl of excited students. "It's a teacher's dream to teach something and see their eyes light up."

At 3rd Street Elementary School in Hancock Park, teacher Bill Merkleson shortened a language arts lesson to devote more time to the up-for-grabs election.

"I tried to be as open and straightforward as possible," said Merkleson, who teaches a fifth-grade class of 28 students in the affluent Los Angeles neighborhood. "Some students knew all about it. Others were oblivious."

His students were befuddled by a system where the winner of the popular vote could still lose. And they were intrigued by the thought that delegates to the electoral college are not bound to cast their ballots exactly as the voters from their home districts did.

"The students found that a very interesting idea," said Merkleson. "And I was questioning that myself."

At Frost Middle School in Granada Hills, the electoral confusion dominated discussions Thursday in teacher Tom Salamon's eighth-grade American history class. Salamon reviewed the week's events and asked students their opinions, particularly on the confusion in Palm Beach County, Fla., over how the ballot was laid out.

Atish Vanmali, 13, said voters should have been more careful. "If they got a sample ballot," he said, "they should know how to do it."

Holding a newspaper, Salamon stressed to his students that they were witnesses to an important political moment. "Here we are two days after the election, when we don't know who the new president is," he said. "You are sitting in on history."

Students in an American government class at Irvine High School also had questions about what they'd seen election night. "How come the media made such a big goof-up, calling it for Gore, then Bush, then nobody?" was a query heard by teacher Greg Gray on Wednesday. "It confirmed their feeling that the media was interested only in ratings," he said.

For Gray's students, this led to an object lesson in another cultural phenomenon: "We talked about how the networks all hired the same company [to tabulate votes]. It points out one of the trends, the consolidation of media, in this country."

On Thursday, his students wanted to know whether Florida voters will be able to challenge the results based on the now-controversial design of the ballot. They wondered what would happen if Bush is declared the winner, then voting fraud is discovered later. Most of their questions were no different from those of the teachers in the lunchroom, he said. "Kids are asking the same kind of questions that the adults are."

Students Ran a Mock Election

At Vista Verde Middle School, Stoldt called out to her class: "It looks like Gore may win the what?"

"Popular vote," they answered, almost in unison.

"And if Florida goes to Bush, Bush will win the--"

"Elector-al."

The teacher noted that Gore could lose the election by fewer than 2,000 votes. "Now, imagine those 2,000 people who didn't go out and vote that would have voted for Gore. How do you think they feel this morning?"

"Stupid!"

The students' mock election was more decisive. They had just elected "George Bush" (Matthew Clayton, 13) and "Ms. Cheney" (Abby Sprague, 13) by a slim 25-23 margin. According to the classroom's "League of Voters" (which included boys), the Libertarians got 13 votes, the Greens 11 and the Reform Party 1. Clayton took the oath of office, swearing on a dictionary, and waved to his classmates as "Hail to the Chief" played on a boom-box by a table of sandwiches and cake.

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