Donutgate: Running a Mock Election Fearlessly

Spring 2020

By Lauren Vargas

This past fall, my classroom was nearly brought down by a few dozen donuts. Every year I run a mock election with the students in my US Government class. In the 2019 mock election, a scandal erupted when one team brought donuts as part of a get-out-the-vote strategy. While this was not expressly prohibited, when other teams had asked whether they could attach treats to flyers or print their logo on foodstuffs, I had counseled strongly against anything that might seem like a “bribe.” “Donutgate,” as it was called, became the kind of teachable moment that advocates of project-based learning live for. As a class, we talked about the role of money in politics and the Venn diagram of legal and ethical gray zones in campaign finance. Suddenly key terms like Citizens United, McCain-Feingold, PACs, and Super PACs were more than just IDs to memorize. We had all lived through a political scandal, and those key terms were not abstract trivia but critical talking points students used to debate whether using donuts in the election was a violation of Kant’s theory of the rights of man or a perfect illustration of utilitarianism.

Teaching American politics can be fraught for independent schools. It opens us up to criticism for pushing one ideology, attempting to create a “generation of social justice warriors” (a supposed jab from a colleague), or even creating opportunities for kids to verbally berate one another. So I understand the fear of losing control of the classroom. The stakes are incredibly high. And yet, if you are willing to take the risk, the reward can be extraordinary.

Running a mock election can be a catalyst for activating student learning and deep engagement. In our classroom, pairs of students (candidate and campaign manager) run in a primary and general election. Their electorate is the entire student body. From the starting point of a strategy memo that outlines the candidates’ likely voter appeal and path to victory in the primary, students build campaign websites and social media platforms, design campaign ads, participate in a debate, and run get-out-the-vote appeals. Each year, I have added components and refined others. You don’t have to start with an expansive multiweek project. Whether it’s a one- or two-day simulation or a unit-long experience, a mock election can transform your classroom and even your school.

In preparing to take this plunge, start with what success will look like. What does the evidence of learning look like? When students come to class early to understand the difference between an issue ad and a negative ad, they are learning how to engage in nuanced dialogue rather than engaging in character attacks. Because political parties are randomly assigned, many students are learning to see issues from a new perspective. Indeed, I have consistently found that students who run from a political party they do not personally align with reference their continued thinking about their own values versus those of the candidate they embodied long after the course has ended. Making two-person teams creates opportunities for collaboration and for students to reckon with their strengths and areas for growth. Each year, at least one student will take me by surprise by deciding to be the candidate. A mock election is a chance for students to try on different roles, some public-facing and others behind the scenes. In one year, I had multiple students arguing over who would get to work with one particular student who in the past had generally needed my intercession to find a partner. But in the mock election, this student’s passion for video editing and web design made his classmates see his value as a teammate. Especially if you are looking for ways to integrate social and emotional learning into your classroom, running a mock election creates those teachable moments. 

I am often asked, Where is the academic rigor? Where is my proof of mastery? I think these are fair and valuable questions to think about before you embark on project-based learning. I use a number of formative assessment tools to check what students know. When students create campaign advertisements, they model their ads on real election ads throughout history, and they need to explain how the ads fit into their overall campaign strategy. On scandal day, students must use the rhetorical tools we discuss in class to react to an unknown situation. In both of these examples, students need to know not just the information but how to use it and in what situations. Finally, I end the mock election by having each team analyze the polling results in Google sheets. We leverage previous work discussing quantitative methodological tools in political science academic journal articles, and students see whether the exit poll results fit their strategy memo—that is, did they appeal to the voters they targeted? In this work, I introduce elementary statistics and data science. Though I teach in the humanities, I come armed with my data when someone asks for proof of learning.

Finally, a mock election can bring your school together. Every year, our student body and faculty are solicited to endorse candidates, appear in campaign ads, leverage their social media followers, and vote. Our project presents a lesson in civics for the entire school. In 2019 for example, the winner of the popular vote in the general election was not the winner of the school’s “electoral college” vote. We run our general election like the American model, so students need three out of five constituencies (each grade 9-12 plus the professional adult community). For days after the final vote, candidates and their supporters inundated social media and the lunch tables with commentary on the pros and cons of the electoral college and different potential reforms to the election system. Even small campaign slips can become lessons for the wider community. In 2016, one candidate mistakenly announced support for a $16-a-year minimum wage instead of a $16-an-hour minimum wage. Needless to say, the other campaigns quickly sent out messages featuring information about the cost of living in the surrounding area and how much minimum wage would cover monthly expenses. At the time, the ninth grade advisory curriculum included a food-justice component where students were tasked with finding just this information. Many teams even noted that they remembered doing this activity themselves and were quick to build that experience into their campaigning for the ninth grade vote. The best projects are those that students believe mean something beyond the walls of the classroom, and engaging your entire school generates a purposefulness that brings out the best student work.

The 2020 presidential election will no doubt challenge us as educators. Politics is messy and, as any political historian will tell you, largely uncivil. Our job as teachers is to find the middle ground between a sterilized and unrealistic bubble and a complete Lord of the Flies situation. A mock election can allow you to support students as they grapple with the world “outside the bubble.” You can create opportunities for deep and meaningful learning and be there to help students problem-solve when faced with unexpected obstacles. This 2020, pledge to fearlessly challenge your students to demonstrate mastery. But maybe also create a rule about donuts.

Anatomy of a Mock Election

  • Strategy Memo: Students design a campaign strategy by identifying target groups of voters and assessing their candidate’s strengths and weaknesses.
  • Campaign Website: Students build and maintain a campaign website that houses their platform, campaign ads, and helps them share their message.
  • Campaign Ad: Students create one introduction advertisement and one issue advertisement inspired by historical examples but in concert with their overall campaign strategy.
  • Scandal Day: Students must react to an unexpected bump in the road.
  • A Debate: Students must create on-the-spot answers to questions posed by the electorate.
  • Election Results Analysis: Students assess the final poll results and whether their campaign strategy paid off.   
Lauren Vargas

Lauren Vargas (lvargas@csus.org) is the Upper School History Department Head and Director of Senior Projects at Crystal Springs Uplands School in Hillsborough, California.