Teaching About the 1996 Elections with the World Wide Web

C. Frederick Risinger

I still miss teaching high school government, which I did for several years in the 1960's and 70's-a great time to teach about U.S. government and politics. But I miss it most every Leap Year, because that's also Election Year. There's no better way to help students understand U.S. government than by using the intense interest generated by the quadrennial national and state elections.
The World Wide Web (WWW) resources related to Presidential, Congressional, and state elections that are available to student and teachers are both extensive and remarkable. While many teachers have used major party platforms as instructional resources for years, the ability to have access to daily press releases from not only the major parties-but from minor parties such as the Libertarian, the Socialist and the Natural Law parties and even Pat Paulsen's perennial candidacy-can put your students inside politics. Moreover, the coverage of Congressional elections can provide an insight into the innate tensions that arise when national and state or local issues conflict.

The Internet is changing politics as it is changing education and U.S. society. It is the very essence of democracy-providing equal access and an equal voice to anyone with a computer and a modem. Many Web sites dealing with politics and the 1996 election provide opportunities for registering a "vote" on candidates or issues. Some of the more popular Web sites-including the "Rock the Vote" and the MTV-sponsored "Choose or Lose," which appeal directly to young people, are averaging thousands of "hits" each day.

This seems paradoxical given the low voter turnout in many state primaries this election season, and the dismal voting rate of 18-24 year-olds. Turning this "virtuaquot; interest in politics and issues into actual participation in the democratic process is one of the toughest challenges facing social studies teachers. However, teachers who do use Internet resources are likely to find heightened student motivation, opportunities for individual or group projects, and the most up-to-date information available about candidates and issues.

Teachers in schools where students do not have ready access to computers or the Internet can still utilize its resources. While having students equipped to use the Internet themselves is the ideal situation, the World Wide Web still can be an invaluable tool. Many students have computers at home and can provide their teachers and other students with information gleaned from politically-oriented Web sites. Teachers with school or home access to the Internet can download hundreds of primary sources, analytical articles about issues or candidates, and both serious and irreverent news reports.

Throughout the country, teachers are using the Internet and its resources in many ways to structure their own presentations and design classroom experiences and projects for students. At Chico High School in Las Vegas, students are role-playing candidates for national and state elections by connecting to the candidates' home pages and reading their views on various issues. At North Hagerstown High in Maryland, teachers and students from across the country are encouraged to send essays, poetry, and artwork related to the election to be added to the school's home page. An Indiana middle school class has created a database based on political party platforms-not just the Republican and Democrat platforms, but those of the Green Party, Ross Perot's Reform Party, and several others. The students are learning how minor parties often emphasize a few issues that are being ignored by the major parties.

I counted more than 200 Web sites that appeared to be relevant and useful to teachers who are teaching about the 1996 elections. There are probably twice that number of sites; but many, like the one set up by comedian Pat Paulsen, are worth little more than a mild chuckle. Listed below are those that I believe provide the most substance, broadest points of view, and best sets of "links" to other election-oriented Web sites. After each site's name, I've included the URL, or Internet address, in parentheses.

NCSS Election Central
http://www.ncss.org/election
One of the best places to begin coverage of the 1996 elections is the Election Central section of the NCSS Online web site. The above URL takes you directly there, although if you haven't explored the other outstanding resources that NCSS provides, be sure to click the "Return to the NCSS MainMenu" button before you leave. The site is divided into categories such as "Candidates," "Political Parties," "Media Coverage," and "Government." It includes direct links to MTV's "Choose or Lose" site and all of the minor parties on state ballots.

The White House for Kids
http://www.whitehouse.gov/WH/kids/html/home.html
Ok, maybe it is a bit too cute, but this is a great site for elementary students. Socks, the Presidential cat, serves as a guide. Only a small part of the site is purely partisan. Within the site, students can learn about White House history as well as the children and pets of former presidents who have lived there. The last time I logged on, there was an
interesting message from Vice President Gore on "Take Your Children on the Internet Week." It's worth a look.

Atlantic Monthly's Election Connection
http://www.TheAtlantic.com/atlantic/election/connection/home.htm
This is one of my favorites. It does a superb job of presenting a balanced view on 16 major national issues, including immigration, health care, foreign policy, and the budget. These would be great for individual and group projects for senior high students or for teacher background information. It also includes an interactive forum. However, the best part of the site is its selective guide to Political Resources. This section has its own URL:
http://www.TheAtlantic.com/atlantic/election/connection/resource.htm
and includes articles and editorials from major metropolitan newspapers and a host of other general resources. It has sections titled "Big Glitzy Media Sites" and "Other," featuring sites "From the left, the right, and places in between." This may be the best set of WWW site links on the Internet.

Vote Smart
http://www.vote-smart.org
With a slogan like "It's Time to Hire the Help," you have to like Vote Smart. It prides itself on being a "one-stop shopping center for political information," and encourages schools and libraries to use its publications and databases. More educationally-oriented than most sites, it has databases and links on historical documents, political resources, research, and statistics, and an excellent essay titled "How the U.S. Government Works: An Introduction." It also does a better job of looking at state and Congressional elections than most sites.

ElectNet: The State Election Watch
http://www.e1.com/gov
While the Presidential and national elections grab all the headlines, most people's lives are affected more by state and local laws and officials. Too often, these elections are ignored by teachers because of lack of accurate and up-to-date information. This outstanding site provides a comprehensive listing of all links to state governors', Congressional, and state legislative races. The Home Page features a "clickable" U.S. map. I clicked on California and Indiana and came up with essays on each Congressional district as well as links to minor parties, full texts of the state constitutions, and home pages developed by college and county political groups. An introductory essay provides a political background and major issues for the state.

All Politics (CNN/Time)
http://allpolitics.com
Many of the major newsmagazines and newspapers provide informative and useful WWW sites. This one stands out because of its comprehensive review of issues and its mock election sites designed specifically for schools. The mock election link has its own URL:
http://allpolitics.com/candidates/mock.election
and a teacher's guide. Many schools throughout the country are participating in this activity.
Congressional Quarterly's

American Voter '96
http://voters96.cqalert.com
The Congressional Quarterly has a deserved reputation for accuracy and balance in its coverage of Congress and national politics. This site includes a section where citizens can rate their U.S. Representative and extensive coverage of all the candidates and major issues. One of the most helpful sections is the CQ Hotlist: http://Voters96.cqalert.com/cq_hot.htm
which provides 10 categories of other WWW sites that "have been screened for content and usefulness, so you don't have to waste your time." The links include historical and contemporary primary documents, a section on activism to help citizens get involved, and one called "potpourri" that I found to be particularly eclectic and interesting.

Choose or Lose 1996
http://chooseorlose.com/chooseorlose
This is MTV's political site. Remember how uncomfortable President Bush was when he was interviewed on the Choose or Lose bus ride in 1992? This is the same group that found out that Bill Clinton prefers boxer shorts. Well, they're at it again-bus trip and all-with special focus on issues that are particularly relevant (so they say) to young people. Teachers might find the information useful in building interest among students who are otherwise turned off by politics.

Rock the Vote
http://www.iuma.com/RTV
This is another youth-oriented site designed to build interest and participation among teenagers and young adults. It's similar to the Choose or Lose 1996 site, but has more thoughtful and substantive essays on issues. For example, their "Guide to Health Care Reform for Young Americans" does an excellent job of presenting this complicated topic in a balanced and comprehensive fashion.

George Magazine's Campaign '96
http://www.georgemag.com/96trail
John F. Kennedy, Jr. is the founder and publisher of this new magazine which combines politics, social issues, and entertainment in one package. It is determinedly non-partisan and features articles by folks like F. Lee Bailey and Madonna. It also has an interactive forum, a political trivia quiz, and a weekly poll on the Presidential race and other issues.

Each and every one of these sites contain links that will lead you and your students to other sites. Write and let me know how you and they use the Internet to teach and learn about the 1996 elections.

C. Frederick Risinger, who is Associate Director of Teacher Education and Coordinator of Social Studies Education at Indiana University, Bloomington, still warns novice Internet users that web surfing can be addictive. He can be reached by e-mail at risinger@indiana.edu.