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Debate readies students for informed votes

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You can tell an election is near because of the rising tide of apocalyptic doom.

On the morning of the day I wrote this, before I had a chance to think of lunch, I was forced to endure the smells of candidates being slow-roasted on the sharp-tongued spits of e-mails. Some said Barack Obama is a closet Muslim and a communist who cheered on the Kenyan prime minister. Others said John McCain would destroy the Middle East and raise gas prices with his angry rhetoric.

Another typical day in late fall 2008.

Which is why my schedule tomorrow has me so delighted. I will be moderating a presidential debate — not some nationally broadcast meeting of the major party candidates, but a debate between junior high school surrogates for the major candidates at Legacy Preparatory Academy, a charter school in North Salt Lake.

The debate is the idea of Paul Maloy, a teacher at the school who doesn't accept the notion that voter ignorance, or frightening last-minute scare tactics, have to be a part of the American electoral tradition. In the interest of full disclosure, Maloy and I are not strangers. We have been close friends since our days together in a church nursery in Phoenix during the Kennedy administration. That doesn't make what he is doing Monday or, most of all, Tuesday, any less remarkable.

Not only has he organized a debate in front of the entire school among four students he chose to represent the candidates and their running mates, he has committed himself to casting his own vote on Tuesday for whichever candidate students at the academy select in their own vote following the debate.

I know what you're thinking. Here is his answer:

"I've been very careful when talking to my students to let them know I'm not throwing my vote away," he said. Instead, he wants them to know that their carefully researched opinions matter; that they will make a difference. It is, in a way, his own vote of confidence in the future generation, as well as a powerful challenge for them to take seriously the trust the nation will bestow on them in a few short years, when they turn 18.

He's making sure they don't take this trust lightly. I'm told the students have spent many long hours studying the candidates' positions on a wide and deep list of issues. The surrogates will represent McCain, Sarah Palin, Obama and Joe Biden and will be expected to answer as if they were them. I will spend the weekend preparing questions on the economy, foreign policy/national security, health care, energy, education and social reform, which includes gun control, gay marriage, the environment and stem-cell research.

And Maloy hasn't set up some phony popular-vote election system, either. Each class at the school will be assigned a number of electoral votes based on size. In addition to studying current issues, students have been studying the Founding Fathers and the system they created.

It all makes me wonder how many adult voters out there go through a similar process, not just when voting for president, but for everything on the ballot right down to the school board. If not, aren't they the ones throwing their votes away?

In a recent piece in The Wilson Quarterly, Princeton professor and author Larry Bartels presents a sobering picture of the American electorate. Beginning in the 1950s, social scientists have conducted studies that show people tend to believe their favorite candidate sees things pretty much as they do, even though that isn't necessarily true. They tend to be more influenced by political ads and partisan biases than by facts or rational debate. And they often let current realities, such as an economic downturn, affect them more than the long-term performances of an incumbent or a party.

Bartels has researched voter perceptions, compared them to facts and determined that several recent elections would have turned out differently if voters had been informed.

Maloy seems to be wagering his students won't make those mistakes. As often has been the case since the early '60s, I'm right behind him.

Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret News editorial page. E-mail: even@desnews.com