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Students attend Citizenship Day program

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In May 1787, a group of leaders gathered in Philadelphia to begin discussing and drafting the U.S. Constitution. They completed their task 226 years ago Tuesday, ending the five-month Constitutional Convention.

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin spoke about the Constitution at the Culture Center during Monday's annual Citizenship Day program attended by students from five high schools.

"Only a small number of men were there: 55 came to the Constitutional Convention, but only 41 stayed to the end. Their average age was 43," Goodwin said.

Thirty-nine ended up actually signing the Constitution. "They met in the same room where the Declaration of Independence was signed 11 years earlier."

The Constitution's ability to endure was a direct result of the time when it was created, Goodwin said.

"People had fought a long war to become independent. We needed to create a national character. ...

"There had been nothing like it before. The government had three branches -- each designed to check the other [branches]."

The Founding Fathers also partially avoided some issues, like slavery. They approved the end of all slave importation in 1808, "But the slavery issue would have to be settled sometime in the future," Goodwin said.

"The Constitution has been tested many times. Perhaps its greatest threat was during the Civil War, when our state was born. Then 50 years ago, it was tested again during the civil-rights movement.

"We must continue to aspire to a more perfect union and establish justice where there is not justice," Goodwin concluded.

Students came to Citizenship Day from Cabell-Midland High School, Roane County High School, Liberty High School in Clarksburg, and Woodrow Wilson and Shady Spring high schools in Raleigh County.

The Roane County High School band played "America the Beautiful" and the Horace Mann Middle School Girls Chorus, from Kanawha City, sang "The Star-Spangled Banner."

After the main event, students broke into groups to participate in three other programs: a tour of the West Virginia State Museum, a West Virginia Constitution seminar and a mock state Legislature session.

Jake Glance, public-relations director for Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, spoke about voting rights and voting patterns in the Mountain State.

Today, West Virginia has 1.2 million voters. But 240,000 of them are not registered in any of the four parties on the state ballot -- the Democratic, Republican, Mountain and Libertarian parties.

"Early voting began in 2002, allowing people to vote during 13 days shortly before Election Day. It has not increased voter turnout, but it has made it easier to vote.

"The percentage of voter turnout appears to be going down," Glance said. "During the 1950s and 1960s, it reached a high of 70 percent. Now, voter turnout is in the mid- to high 50-percent range.

"The increased number of voters who are registered," Glance added, "has led to a stable number of people voting."

Glance also pointed out that the Electoral College "assures that any state gets some attention. You have to campaign in small states, so states like West Virginia do not get ignored."

A small state can even change the results of a national election. If West Virginia had cast its five Electoral College votes for Al Gore in 2000, he would have become president. Gore also won the popular vote that year against George W. Bush.

Doug Wetsch, from the Ohio-West Virginia Youth Leadership Association, chaired mock West Virginia Senate sessions.

Students in one mock session Wetsch hosted chose to discuss growing prescription drug abuse and hypothetical legislation requiring all adults receiving public assistance to take drug tests once a month.

The overwhelming majority of the students in the session voted to pass that legislation.

Critics during the mock session raised questions about how much those tests, and the potential increase in jail terms, would cost the state. One critic said it was not fair to test only poor people.

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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