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Lessons in democracy

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Even with no empty promises, no super PACs and none of the candidates trading insults, the election campaign that played out this month was still something of a zoo.

“Vote for Anna – She’s No Banana!” read one poster.

“Mr. Giraffe approves of Nolen for President,” said another.

And for anyone wondering whether national politics had spilled over into the halls of Waccamaw Intermediate School there was this: “Make WIS Great Again!” That was Jake Besser’s slogan, but any suggestion that he was a Celebrity Apprentice in the making was dispelled by another of his posters that read, “I mustache you to vote for me.”

Each classroom elected a representative to the student Senate earlier in the year. From the Senate members, they came up with nominees for secretary from the fourth-graders, vice president from the fifth-graders and president from the sixth-graders. The election of officers was delayed by the closing of schools for six days in October due to record rains and the flooding the followed.

“It’s a great process, especially with what’s coming up next year in the presidential election,” said principal Tim Carnahan as students rushed to get a place in line at the polls. They were set up Friday during the three lunch periods: 20 Dell laptops with brown cardboard on three sides to keep the ballots secret.

There was no question of voter apathy. Out of 540 enrolled at the school, 494 cast votes.

“It was the first time we ever voted,” said Coker Street, a fourth-grader.

“You have to be 18 to vote for real,” said her classmate, Delanie Newsome.

The candidates – three for secretary, four for VP and six for president – made video recordings of their speeches, which were screened before the morning of the election. That was due in part to the time factor, said Sarah Colegrove, a sixth-grade teacher and the Senate advisor. But she thought the past practice of delivering the speeches in person was intimidating for some of the candidates even though they tend to be “out-going kind of people.”

Like any election, the Senate race was partly a popularity contest, but she urged the candidates to find a platform that would have meaning for the voters. “They had a lot of really good ideas,” Colegrove said.

And they had a sense for how to communicate their ideas. “I’m trustworthy. Trust me,” Jake, a fifth-grader, said before giving the camera on Colegrove’s computer a broad stage wink.

He also proposed a program called Gator Goods. The school mascot is a gator. Students caught by a teacher doing “an extremely good deed” will have their name placed in a box for a drawing at some future date. Carnahan will draw one or more names to receive prizes.

The idea resonated with voters. He was elected vice president. “He’s pretty cool,” said Jameson Baldwin, a sixth-grader who said he voted for Jake.

Students agreed that the speeches were helpful and gave valuable insights. “The speeches make it easy to know what they’re going to do,” said Sidney Cardinale, a fifth-grader.

Luke Kibler promised to “show up on time and follow directions” if elected Senate secretary. He wore a tie the afternoon the speeches were recorded and exuded confidence. “I’m Luke Kibler, the man with the plan,” he said, looking straight into the camera, his feet dangling from the stool set up to keep him at eye level.

He was also the voters’ choice.

Keith Brown, the middle school technology coach for the Georgetown County School District, created the voting system using Google cloud software. Voters saw photos of the candidates above their names. After they made their selections, the voters could review their ballots before casting them. Once they did, the results were instantly tallied on a central computer.

It’s the same system the district uses for teacher evaluations, with a few tweaks, Brown said.

The last lunch period is the fourth-grade’s. The races were close with about a third of the electorate lined up to get their meals.

Coker Street, a first-time voter, said she and her brother had run for classroom representatives. They had the idea of a Watermelon Wednesday, she said.

That idea was picked up by Nolen Howard, one of the candidates for president.

“Most people would start a speech by talking about themselves, but I want to talk about you,” she said. “What’s your favorite thing to do at recess? If you said kickball, then you’re in luck.”

Her platform was based on bringing back kickball tournaments to all the grades. Only fifth-graders play now.

“After a kickball game, nothing is more refreshing than a nice juicy slice of watermelon. How cool would it be to have a Watermelon Wednesday?” she asked rhetorically. Nolen proposed selling watermelon slices at lunch every other Wednesday.

Then she turned her attention to the Gator Stomp, a school dance held as a reward for the school’s collective achievement on projects. She envisioned a winter Gator Stomp with the cafeteria decorated with snowflakes. Nolen sensed she was on risky ground politically.

“Don’t worry, boys. You won’t have to dress fancy. Just wear what’s comfortable,” she said.

Nolen tapped what appeared to be a deep vein of voter concern, even in fifth-graders who already play kickball. “We barely get to play it,” said Mary Grace Kowalczyk.

“I liked the way she would do more for us than for herself,” said Rhiannon White, a sixth-grader.

Although the results were known before the students reached their classrooms, the winners weren’t announced until Monday morning. Colegrove called all the candidates after school on Friday to give them the news in private. Nolen was greeted with hugs when her classmates learned she had been elected president.

Carnahan said he looked forward to working with her on the kickball tournaments.

There’s no honeymoon for the Senate officers. The school will hold a food drive for the Salvation Army in December. “They are the ones who will be the leaders in their class,” Colegrove said. “I love to see the kids get involved.”

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