The Townsend Harris Election Simulations
Since 1996 the Institute has worked with Townsend Harris High School to develop and refine a uniquely ambitious, rigorous, and successful election simulation model that has engaged thousands of students in area high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools in yearly simulations. At Townsend Harris, the simulation is an all school affair that begins with the start of school in September with the seniors playing the active political roles—candidates, campaigns, interest groups, media, election officials—and the other three classes playing voters. Freshman votes are given extra weight to encourage seniors to pay particular (and friendly) attention to them.
Campaigns and interest groups are given Simbucks—simulation money that can be used to purchase advertising and cover other campaign expenses—and media groups must raise their own budgets by selling advertising. Each voter receives a small number of simbucks they can contribute as they wish and a select few (“fatcats” chosen at random) are given larger sums. Students must plan and prioritize in the same way as real-world actors. Because the simulation is taking place at the same time as the real-world campaigns, students are required to follow and respond to the events of those campaigns. Teachers advising the respective groups grade them based on their performances and associate written work. Systematic research demonstrates that the simulation raises the participant’s sense of political efficacy and their political knowledge, two key variables affecting political participation.
Every four years the simulation focuses on the presidential election. In the subsequent year, the simulation follows the elections for New York City’s municipal offices—mayor, city council, etc. The next year, the third year of our cycle, we have the midterm elections for the Congress as well as the elections for the New York State Legislature, governor, etc. In the fourth year, the simulation follows the presidential nomination process based on a primary election. Each year the Institute prepares three manuals—one for a full school simulation of the sort that Townsend Harris does, one for a multi-classroom versions, one for a single classroom version—that are posted on our web site to make them available to teachers at no cost. The crucial point to understand is that this model is adaptable for any level of student, and for any level of resources. It can be done in an entire school with elaborate “production values” or it can be done in one classroom with whatever is on hand. It has even been adapted for kindergartners. For details, please see the manuals for the last four simulation years here.