A look at the history of the Election Simulation

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A legacy of past elections. Collage by Fran Horowitz.

When it comes down to it, what Harrisite doesn’t look forward to spending their Simbucks on cookies, muffins, or the occasional home cooked meal?

The Election Simulation is undoubtedly one of the traditions that makes Townsend Harris unique. It is older than ost of the students attending the school, having been founded in 1996 by then Assistant Principal of Humanities Lynn Greenfield. She and several of the other Humanities teachers set up this program as a means to establish a more modern learning approach, and with Queens College liaisons, they also set out to write an extensive rulebook to get the tradition started.

The goal of having students experience an election firsthand was to engage them intellectually, in the hopes that they would continue their interest in politics as adults.

Social Studies teacher Chris Hackney, who was the technological overseer at its beginning, described the idea as “an experiment in experiential learning to see if students would learn as much in a non-traditional educational setting as they would in a traditional one.” He continued, “They wanted to see if changing the style of learning would have a longer lasting benefit on the students and [whether it] would enable them to vote later on in life and be more interested in the political process.”

The initial idea was meant to simulate the actual election as closely as possible, and it involved much more effort on the students’ part. In its early years, the program was a school-wide event that had the seniors teach underclassmen all about the election and the candidates. Both history and English classes lived and breathed the Election Simulation for three consecutive months until the election.

It wasn’t just a supplement to learning done on Fridays, but rather something that occurred on a daily basis. Another difference was that there was no such thing as printed Simbucks, but instead fundraisers handed out food and other goodies for absolutely free.

So what changed? For one thing, the people in charge: Lynne Greenfield and her team of devotees left THHS or retired shortly after initiating the Election Simulation, so they weren’t able to see it through to completion.

Additionally, the school faced budget cuts. The school did not have enough funds on hand to run the simulation, and no one argued for its survival. Also, support waned as some teachers complained that it interfered with their curriculums, especially after the school began to provide AP Government for seniors.

Mr. Hackney, who had the job of supervising both the radio and TV shows, explained that there were initially four separate TV shows. They were modeled after actual news shows, and the process involved was time-consuming and took a lot of planning since they used VHS at the time. However, as technology progressed and shows were easier to make, the quality decreased. The low-brow humor in many of the comedy shows led to the simulation just having one news show. “There is a fine line between making a show funny and inappropriate,” Mr. Hackney remarked, as he remembered the The Amazing Show Show, the last of its funny show predecessors. “As time progressed, Townsend became more conservative with its TV shows.”

There also used to be two radio shows, a serious one and another modeled after Howard Stern’s show, notable for mocking elections and their misrepresentation of facts. However, many complained that the Howard Stern Show only confused the majority of students, and it was taken off the air.

Science teacher Phillip Porzio actually participated in the Election Simulation as a student in one of the first Participatory Democracy classes.

As a member of the class of 1998, he covered the mayoral election of Giuliani vs. Messinger, with the whole grade taking a more active role in the simulation since there were no AP courses offered at the time. Mr. Porzio played the president of the UFT (United Federation of Teachers), promoting the ballot propositions of different candidates.

“Playing in a special interest group was not as fun as playing the role of a candidate, but it still served as a memorable experience,” he said.

The Election Simulation has also gained much popularity over the years, even being featured on national television. In 2008, MTV did a spotlight on Townsend Harris’s portrayal of the presidential election between Obama and McCain.

The report was not about the students predicting actual election results, but instead about students educating each other and increasing their involvement in the political sphere.

Although Social Studies teacher Adam Stonehill has never taught Participatory Democracy, he has been indirectly involved with the Election Simulation from its start. He claims that the simulation itself has been fairly similar throughout the years, and that he has noticed only small changes, like a greater abundance of print media and posters in previous years. Also, with advancements in technology, he noted that there is a bigger variety of commercials.

Although small details changed with time, the core values remain in place: the simulation still involves the whole school and enables seniors to teach underclassman fundamental lessons about the political world.

The Election Simulation will continue to stand out in most Harrisites’ high school experience.