Sept. 3-9, 1999
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Program aims to make high school students lifelong voters
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Youth Leadership Initiative
Photo Courtesy of Youth Leadership Initiative
High school students from Charlottesville and Albemarle who are participating in the Youth Leadership Initiative visited the U.S. Capitol in Washington this spring.

Program aims to make high school students lifelong voters

By Nancy Hurrelbrinck

With U.S. voter turnout lower than that in any other industrialized country, Larry J. Sabato, Robert Kent Gooch Professor of Government and Foreign Affairs, decided one solution is to start offering teenagers a chance to gain hands-on experience with the political system.

"For as long as I've been in politics, I've been appalled by the public's lack of knowledge about civic affairs," said Sabato, who directs U.Va.'s Center for Governmental Studies, which he founded last year. "I really do believe it's the source of the public policy ills that bedevil us. If we're going to correct this, we have to start with the young."

Beginning this fall, students attending Charlottesville and Albemarle County high schools can participate in the center's Youth Leadership Initiative. Organized around a mock election, the project also includes training sessions, student-forged campaigns, political forums and a wide assortment of hands-on activities, said Alexander G. Theodorodis, the center's program director.

"A lot of schools have mock elections, but they don't necessarily do anything before or after," said Theodorodis, who graduated from U.Va. in 1998. "This is a way to incorporate politics into the whole curriculum."

At the beginning of the three-month program, which has received non-partisan funding, center staff will train youth leaders, and faculty sponsors will attend a two-day training session on Grounds.

Though the pilot program involves seven area high schools, 35,000 students from across the state will participate in the mock election, making it the largest Internet ballot that's ever been cast in the nation, said YLI director Ken Stroupe.

"Because we're using a secure Internet ballot, this has become a demonstration project for the state Board of Elections and the governor's office," he added. Students will vote in the Virginia Senate, the House of Delegates and their local elections in this year's mock election, and for the presidential candidates in next year's primaries.

The program is also a demonstration project for teachers, who will learn how to incorporate into their classes the center's interactive software and citizenship curriculum. Both were recently endorsed by the 51,000-member Virginia Education Association's executive board, Stroupe said.

All schools in Virginia will participate fully in the program in 2000, and the center staff hope to offer it nationwide by 2004. "We chose to work with high school students because that's when most students begin to have their political awakenings," Sabato said. "Not all do -- many don't -- and that's another justification for this program.² He added that teenagers like to focus on issues such as environmentalism and civil rights, but ³in the end, all roads lead to politics. No public policy is created outside the political system."

Sabato speculated that many Americans are reluctant to participate in that system due to their "lack of knowledge. If people don't know the rules of the game, they're not going to get involved. Politics is a complicated sport and you do have to know the rules."


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