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No vote? No matter

Younger teens encouraged to be politically active

Younger teens encouraged to be politically active

November 02, 2004|by ANDREA ROWLAND

andrear@herald-mail.com

Jennifer Payne's students might not have been old enough to vote in Maryland's 2002 gubernatorial election, but they still turned out to the polls to fulfill their duty as citizens.

Armed with posters and fliers that promoted Republicans running for state, county and city political seats, about 30 seniors in Payne's government class at Highland View Academy east of Hagerstown engaged in "electioneering" at polling places throughout Hagers-town.

"They loved it. The kids had so much fun," said Payne, English and history teacher at Highland View Academy. "For the most part, everyone was really nice and friendly to them. People like to see teenagers involved. And the kids really felt that they were making a difference."

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Payne said interested students in grades nine through 12 at Highland View Academy will stomp for Demo-cratic, Republican and independent candidates today at local voting venues.

Electioneering is but one way that people younger than 18 - voting age - can get involved in politics.

"I just think it's critical that we get the young people involved," said Hagerstown City Councilman N. Linn Hendershot. "The more people we can educate about how the system works, who can actually hear the debate and learn how democracy works, the better."

Attending city and county government meetings is a good way for young people to feel the pulse of the political system on a local level, to learn how the system works and who is responsible for what, Hendershot and Payne said.

"A lot of the time city council and county meetings are open to the public. That's a good way for (young people) to see how the process works," Payne said. "I've encouraged kids to go in the past."

Hendershot said he'd like teenagers to attend Hagers-town City Council work sessions, which start at 4 p.m. the first three Tuesdays of each month. While the public always is welcome to attend the council's regular meetings, the more informal work sessions might give teens more opportunity to ask questions and voice their opinions, Hendershot said.

"We want them there," he said.

Kids might be surprised at what they learn when they attend political meetings, Linda Zittle said. As committee chairwoman for Boy Scout Troop 136, she took a group of Scouts to a Hagers-town City Council meeting last spring as part of their work to earn citizenship and community badges.

"They knew about voting on a national level, but they didn't realize (council members) had to vote with 'yeas' and 'nays' to get things done in the community," Zittle said. "All of us need to be conscious of what's going on in our city and state and nation. Our kids need to know what's going on in their hometown so they learn how things work in the world."

A simple conversation about politics - around the dinner table, at school, in youth clubs - might spark teens' interest in the subject.

Marie Bikle, adviser for Venture Crew 20 in Boonsboro, said the 16- to 21-year-old members of the Boy Scouts-affiliated life skills group often discuss politics while dining together during their semimonthly meetings. The Venturers recently discussed whether or not individuals who vote for independent candidate Ralph Nader in the 2004 presidential election will be wasting their vote, Bikle said.

Young people are encouraged - if minors, with parental permission and transportation - to help out at the Democratic Central Committee's and Republican Central Committee's headquarters in Hagerstown, committee members said.

The Democratic headquarters are open during campaign seasons and for special political events, and volunteers always are needed for such tasks as stuffing envelopes and answering phones, Chairman Rick Hemphill said.

"There's a lot of political discussion going on, so just being there they will get a feel for how campaigns work. They're going to be around people who are politically active and who look at things from a political standpoint," Hemphill said. "It helps prime the students for life, because politics is an integral part of life. It is a government class far beyond what they would get anywhere else. ... Somebody has to bring the next generation forward in the political system so they understand it. To be involved in the political process helps a person be a better citizen."

Young people also might benefit from the political discussions they'll hear if they fold brochures, send party letters and help out with other jobs at the Republican headquarters, said Mildred "Mickey" Myers, publicity chairwoman for the Republican Central Committee.

"I really think it gives them a good sense of the competitiveness of all this," Myers said. "I think they would listen and hear the people who come into the headquarters, and the comments they make - which is quite interesting. Just to see all the things that are done on the grassroots level would be beneficial. They would learn just exactly what the central committee does. I think it would be a great experience for them."

In addition to pushing for more civics study in Washington County Public Schools, Hendershot said, it's important to find a new corporate sponsor for the Kids Voting program, which sets up student polling places on election day so kids can cast ballots in the same building as their parents do. Allegheny Energy no longer sponsors the program, Hendershot said.

"Some way, we need to resurrect that. We should be teaching them how to use the voting machines, and what the issues are," he said.

Hendershot said there's something the Republicans and Democrats can agree on.

"We need to do a better job for the kids," he said.

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