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Kids Voting works to inspire adults, too

May 29, 2002|by BOB MAGINNIS

After six years as chairman of the project known as Kids Voting, Carolyn Shaw had considered passing the torch to someone else. As a lobbyist for Allegheny Energy, her schedule was full most days and she felt it might be a good time to let someone else lead.

Then came Sept. 11 and Shaw decided that with the nation under attack, the project's goal of increasing voter turnout was more important than ever.

There's no doubt that some spark of inspiration is needed. In the 2001 Hagerstown election, only 3,049 of the city's 18,264 registered voters - about 16.7 percent - cast ballots.

And, despite a hotly contested presidential race in 2000, only 68 percent of Washington County's registered voters went to the polls or cast absentee ballots.

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In attempt to reverse those trends, Kids Voting will set up its own polling places in the same buildings where adults vote, so that children can come along with their parents on election day and cast ballots in their own straw poll.

Having children accompany their parents to the polls is a tradition that began more than 40 years ago in Costa Rica. A group of U.S. businesspeople on layover there saw what was happening and decided to import the idea.

Kids Voting made its U.S. debut in Arizona in 1988 and adult turnout increased by 3 percent that first year. In the 1996 election, Harford County, Md., turnout went up by 10 percent.

This was accomplished - at no cost to the taxpayers - by distributing free materials to the schools to get children interested in the voting process. The idea is that they'll be enthused enough about voting to encourage parents to do the same.

The result has been an enthusiastic outpouring of support from school teachers, administrators and students. In 2000, as part of a celebration of National Kids Voting Day, 160 fifth-graders from the Boonsboro area pledged to go to the polls with their parents.

Some 500 volunteers staffed the county's 43 polling places that November, in an effort to add to the 15,000 students who had cast ballots since the organization set up a county chapter here in 1996. Kids Voting officials estimate that since the program began in the U.S., more than 500,000 adults have been inspired to vote.

And not only does the program instill some civic responsibility, it also improves student achievement, according to two studies at Stanford University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Those studies found that the political discussions sparked by Kids Voting helped lower-income students hold their own academically against those from more affluent families.

Teachers I've spoken to over the years also tell me that Kids Voting teaches children that just as there are different political parties, there are different ways to cooperate to achieve their goals. And students learn that just as fuel is needed to power any machine, voters are needed to move the engine of government forward.

Thanks to some energetic fund-raising by the alumni of Leadership Hagerstown, there's enough in the treasury to cover the costs of the upcoming election. But the group will need volunteers to staff the polling places.

In previous years, groups of about 10 were used at each location, so that no one volunteer had to stay from daybreak to sundown. Groups that have participated in the past include service clubs, employee groups and members of local PTAs.

If you believe this is a worthy cause, you can volunteer by calling Frank Clopper, the project coordinator, at 301-790-6115, or by e-mailing him at ELK378@aol.com. To learn more about Kids Voting in general, visit the group's Web site at kidsvotingusa.org.

I have a vested interest in the success of Kids Voting, because as someone who watches politicians for a living, it's in my best interests if more citizens are paying attention.

On every election day since 1996, I've waited by the phone for the Kids Voting tally to be complete, then added it into a full-page advertisement containing the results, an ad which has generously been donated by The Herald-Mail.

Earlier this week, The Herald-Mail took the editorial position that while every citizen will not be able to fight terrorism directly in Afghanistan, everyone can vote. What a tribute it would be to those who are fighting - and those who've lost their lives - if citizens racked up a turnout that approached 100 percent.

Start paying attention to the races now and you won't have an embarrassing moment later when your children ask you who you're voting for. Wouldn't it be better to impress them with your choices than be forced to tell them that you're not really sure what's going on?

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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