High school students head to the ‘polls’
It’s all about participation for students in veteran teacher Mike Cormack’s Contemporary Issues class, who are coordinating the 2020 Fall Iowa Youth Straw Poll (IYSP) for Southwest Valley High School in Corning.
Conducted by the Iowa Secretary of State’s Office on Oct. 27, the IYSP is an engaging, statewide, interactive exercise which aims to illustrate to students the importance of voting in a democracy. Students across the state will cast their vote for their preferred candidate for the offices of U.S. President, U.S. Senate, and U.S. House of Representatives.
“There’s a lot of good I see out of participating in this program,” said Cormack, whose professional career models the meaning of participation. He teaches everything from required courses like American government and U.S. History Since the Civil War, to electives like microeconomics, Contemporary Issues, and a course on leadership. He also coaches girls’ varsity basketball, and has been assistant softball and baseball coach at the high school.
“The poll does link our students to students statewide,” Cormack said. “We are a rural school, and they do feel a sense of accomplishment and pride in joining other students in a collective effort around the state. I think that’s a positive.”
The students in Cormack’s current events class are coordinating and promoting the event, and distributing and collecting the ballots at the high school. They have put up posters around the building reminding and encouraging students to vote, while remaining absolutely neutral about who should receive a vote.
“I believe my role as a teacher in everything I do, is not to promote Republican, Democrat or independent,” Cormack said. “My job is to promote participation. And good citizenship is being involved.
I don’t care if our students are headed toward conservative, liberal or somewhere in between. I am concerned if they are apathetic. And so, anything that we can do that allows them to participate I think is a positive. I don’t see any downside. I see nothing but good.”
Cormack says how accurate the straw poll ends up being compared to the actual vote is irrelevant when compared to the value of knowing what is on the minds of the large number of students around the state and of providing them an outlet to express those views.
“We have some students who will vote in the upcoming presidential election, and many students who will be eligible to vote in the election two years from now,” Cormack said. “I do think it is something where the more you participate, the more likely you are to participate in the future. This is an opportunity for students to either think about voting, or remind themselves that they are about to vote in the near future.
“For so many students who aren’t able to vote now, but do have an interest in what’s going on, it’s an outlet to be able to express what they think about the candidates running for president, senate, and U.S. house,” he said. “It allows them to have some perspective on how the whole process works. Those are real benefits.”
All students at the high school are provided the opportunity to participate. Voting takes place on Oct. 27 during the first five minutes of fourth-period classes which allows for maximum participation since some students attend morning classes at a local community college.
Schools who participate in the IYSP register via the Iowa Secretary of State’s website, where official ballots are made available. Last year, most students at the high school wanted to participate in the poll and only a few opted out. However, just like in an actual election, no one is ever forced to vote.
Once votes are cast at Southwest Valley High School, the ballots are placed in sealed envelopes, collected, tabulated, uploaded to the Iowa Secretary of State’s website, and then shared with other schools for comparison throughout the state.
“We want this to be representative of what the students are actually thinking,” Cormack said. “We’re probably looking at about 90-95 percent participation. The only challenge this year is for our remote learners or those who have temporary circumstances, and we will try to find ways to allow them the opportunity to have their say.”
Many students are surprised to learn there are nine presidential candidates on the ballot this general election.
“It introduces students to the fact that there are any number of parties in our state and that anybody who can get on the ballot is worthy of our respect for doing so in any one of these races,” Cormack said.
Cormack says the Secretary of State’s website has an added feature where candidates provide a short video biography of themselves and highlight why they are running for office. Sometimes candidates give a general speech and sometimes they tailor their comments to high school students. Teachers can share the videos with students during class.
“What I have generally found is that those messages, regardless of party, are again trying to inspire young people to participate, which is nothing but good,” Cormack said. "Sometimes, we in Iowa don’t realize how we are right in the heart of so much political activity compared to other states. We have national figures that come to our state. With it being such a competitive state, people from all parties do come to our state to campaign. That does not happen in all 50 states.”
Cormack notes that students, just like adults, sometimes get frustrated with the volume of political ads and messaging, but he adds, “I try to remind them that some countries determine their leadership through guns and bullets. We do it through harsh words and at the ballot box and it works out in the end.”
“One nice thing about the Iowa Youth Straw Poll is it does seem a wide swath of students, regardless of academic ability, do seem to be interested in this, and that is nothing but good because at the end of the day, regardless of a student’s grades, their background, or anything else, they’re all going to be American citizens, all Iowa citizens,” Cormack said. “It is great that something like this does seem to attract a wide variety of student interest and background.”