In Exeter-Milligan’s ‘electoral college,’ lessons in civic health

For Exeter-Milligan students, running for "class president" means learning how their community is stronger when they all own it together.

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The commons area at Exeter-Milligan school is bustling for a winter Wednesday lunch hour. Usually, it’s a walkthrough from the cafeteria this time of day, but it’s voting day. 

Three presidential candidates and their parties in the junior class are making last-minute appeals to 7-12 grade peers.

Potential voters and a few loiterers are crowded around the ‘Party in the USA Party’ table. It doesn’t hurt that candidate Jaiden Papik is giving out little bags of popcorn and has a zippy slogan to match: Pop Your Vote 4 Papik. 

The “Looking Forward Party” and candidate Clint Oldehoeft have lured their own respectable crowd to their table with a bottle flip game. 

The “Free American Party” and candidate Jackson Beethe are keeping it simple: Chips Ahoy cookies and Vote for Jackson posters. It’s working: their table has plenty of visitors.

Officially, the ballots cast will determine the next President of the American Government Class and the president will have greater influence in classroom decisions than other students. 

But that’s not really what the election is about. The ultimate goal is simply to get students to think of themselves as citizens, said social studies teacher Jordan Marr, who created the project in 2011.

The election also prepares students for another class project where they can petition administration for changes they feel will benefit their school. It might be an issue they campaigned on or an idea that grew from the process. 

“I devised this project as a way for my students to better understand civic engagement, the political process, and modern issues.”                                       

* * *

For some students, Room 206 at E-M is where they first learn to back opinions with research and listen to opposing voices. It can be eye-opening. Some students have switched their individual party loyalties or changed their minds on a long-held opinion.

Over eight weeks, students are introduced to active and single-issue political parties; to the history of the country’s two largest political parties, and to platforms, elections and processes to improve communities. 

Most years at least one of the student-led ideas coming out of 206 comes to fruition.

For example: 

  • Students convinced the administration to put a coffee machine in the Commons area so students can have free coffee in the morning.
  • They led a successful petition process for increased time between class periods. 
  • They gained the use of cell phones during downtime at the discretion of the individual teacher.
  •  They changed the Homecoming Royalty selection process, limiting it to king and queen candidates. (Formerly, E-M selected prince and princesses but some classes are small enough that it left only one girl or boy without a royalty title.)

“I try to push proper ways of getting ideas across,” Marr said. “Something other than a blast on social media.”

* * * 

Back in the Commons area, the sectional couch is crowded with students who are done voting. An extremely informal exit poll shows a close race and some unusual reasons for their choices. (The popcorn was really a big hit.)

There’s a write-in candidate on hand, too: sophomore Wesley Ronne.

“I’m running to see what would happen,” he says with a shrug. He relied on word-of-mouth and one campaign poster to sway voters. He actually likes politics, or at least learning about it, and may look into government on the local level someday. 

At the far end of the Commons, Marr collects votes and reports a strong turnout: 100 percent from the senior class and the 7th-grade class so far.  

* * * 

The student campaigns include all the major elements of real elections. They decide who is the most electable in each party. There’s an electoral college, made up of one or two teachers from each grade, and they have gone rogue at least once and split from the student vote. 

Students have to raise funds and follow campaign rules: No defacing opponent posters. No attack ads on the TV commercials they create and air in the Commons. 

Each group starts out with campaign buttons and posterboard, then lobbies selected teachers with deep pockets of fake money. 

Science teacher Matt Nicholas looks forward to the campaign each year. “I love to play devil’s advocate and push them to understand the pros and cons.”

The current platform issues include:

  • Adopting strict rules and background checks for people adopting animals. 
  • Implementing better mental health services for students.
  • Lowering the drinking age. 
  • Using more renewable energy. 
  • Create stricter requirements for childhood vaccinations. 
  • Legalizing marijuana for medical use.
  • Unlocking streaming networks on school-provided laptops outside of school hours. (Students can take the laptops home with them.)

Defending their platforms was an eye-opener, students said. Oldehoeft felt that one of his party’s strengths was adjusting and adding new ideas to appeal to contributors and voters.

Nicholas listens to each platform idea from the students sitting on lab stools in a semi-circle around his desk. What would be beneficial about legalizing marijuana in Nebraska, he asks? How would one control who sees what on school laptops once the sites are unblocked? Who would pay for the background checks for would-be pet owners? He offers encouragement to each group.

 “Keep working. I want to see further development of your arguments… I hope you come back and see me because I’m flush with cash,” he tells them in December.

* * * 

By the end of election day Jan. 22, the student body and electoral college have chosen the next president. 

Jaiden Papik did pop the vote. 

She and her party picked up 28 votes. The Free American party was close behind with 21 and the Looking Forward Party garnered 19. Ronne earned 4 votes – a good amount for a sophomore write-in. Eleven votes were lost to bad ballots and votes for nonstudents.  (Two people voted for Jesus.)

The newly elected president is not sure what special decisions she might make for her class yet. But she does know she learned something valuable. 

“I literally didn’t know anything about politics… But you figure out stuff. Like with increasing teacher’s wages – everyone wants that, but how do you pay for it?” she asks, like a seasoned politician.

She’s not and doesn’t plan to be, but she is sold on recognizing a problem in a community and trying to find solutions for it.

“The community part of it – yes – I will get involved in that side.”

 Beethe was surprised at the amount of work behind a campaign and how research can change an idea. He would change platform issues if he could do it again.

“I did more research after the election and realized the money you get from taxing marijuana goes right back to pay for rehab programs so I just figure it’s not really worth it … instead of talking about stuff that doesn’t really matter, I’d try to figure out ways to help veterans who served our country and are on the streets now.’

He’s not sure he will get involved in politics, either, but he’s more interested now in researching ways to make communities better. 

Did you hear that?

Marr just dropped a microphone somewhere and walked out of the room.

Or maybe he’ll just get a little choked up when he reads the student comments. Because that’s exactly what the project he created is about: 

“To promote the idea of being civic-minded … A big percentage of students say ‘I don’t want to be in government.’ I try to have them understand that government is all around them and that government is needed. We might not always like it, but it’s here to achieve certain goals.”

Rebecca, the marketing coordinator for Fortify Group of Shickley, Geneva, and North Platte, enjoys life on a farm near Milligan. Rebecca spent the first part of her career in newspapers, including the Hastings Tribune and Lincoln Journal Star, and also was director of communications at Doane University.

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