High Schoolers Debate Issues, Nominate Presidential Hopefuls At Mock Conventions

Republican delegates discuss the party’s platform at this weeks Kids Voting USA convention in Marathon County.

High school delegates gathered this week on the University of Wisconsin-Marathon County campus in Wausau to participate in two different mock political conventions — one for Democrats, another for Republicans.

The conventions were organized by a Marthon County chapter of the Kids Voting USA program, which strives to encourage civic engagement among children and teenagers, in part through such mock conventions and elections. This year, Kids Voting USA is celebrating its 20th anniversary in the area.

Students participating in the Wausau conventions represented their parties, their schools and their assigned states.

The first order of business at any convention is coming up with a party platform. This year, the Republicans were split over the question of legalizing marijuana. Delegates voted against outright legalization by a wide margin, but approved measures that would permit medicinal marijuana, while leaving recreational use up to the states.

In a floor speech, Jordan Kowalski, Wausau West High School student and a Republican from Maine, argued, “It’s not a healthy thing to do on a daily basis, but neither is alcohol or tobacco, and those are in fact legal.”

Across the street, Democrats debated whether to make foreign language instruction mandatory in public schools.

Sanjana Arji, another Wausau West High School student and a Democrat from Maine, said that English isn’t enough. “If we had more people who are able to speak a second language, then more jobs can happen,” she said.

Aeden Groth of the EEA Academy and the state of Virginia opposed the amendment, because “some kids already have enough trouble in school, and having a required foreign language could make it harder.”

The foreign language amendment passed in a 63 to 39 vote. The Democrats’ education plank also included support for teachers unions.

Kids Voting board member Katie Rosenberg got involved with the program as a sixth-grader when it launched in Marathon County 20 years ago.

“These kids are working on issues like immigration, abortion, (and) guns,” she said. “But then you’ll hear a lot of them talking about some other issues that maybe they’re not talking about nationally. There’s a lot of talk about education. They really are passionate about it.”

University of Wisconsin Political Science Professor and Kids Voting board member Eric Giordano said the debate over the party platforms was even more important than the election of candidates at the mock conventions.

“We’re trying to help young people to understand how the process works,” Giordano said, “to get them excited about it, to get them interested in it, to realize that these are real people who make up the platforms for the parties, who run for office, who serve as delegates for the convention.”

The mock conventions each nominated several candidates for president, who participated in issue-oriented debates.

The Republicans eventually chose 15-year-old Matt Stewart of Colby High School. With a full beard, and wearing a business suit, Stewart said that homeland security would be his top priority.

At the Democratic convention, there were multiple ballots before 18-year-old Preston “Pre” Mertins of Colby High school defeated Jacob Lasee — a relative of Wisconsin Republican lawmakers Frank and Alan Lasee — of the Engineering and Global Leadership Academy.

Preston Mertins said his top priority would be trying to bridge the partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans — a goal, appropriately enough, that’s been shared by the Kids Voting program for the past 20 years.