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In this program, even kindergartners have a vote

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 5, 2012 - They won’t be able to cast ballots that count until they are 18, but tens of thousands of students across the St. Louis area have gone to the polls in their schools over the past several days to choose their favorite candidates and say yes or no to ballot propositions.

It’s part of Kids Voting Missouri, the local arm of a nationwide program that has let students get a taste of what it’s like to take part in the democratic process. Sandy Diamond, director of the program based at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, says the local effort is the largest in the nation.

By the time they sit down in front of a computer and make their picks, they will have explored themes like what is democracy, what are a citizen's rights and responsibilities, how does casting a ballot give individuals power and how can citizens work together to have an impact on their government.

In an era of high-stakes testing and limited class time, those topics sometimes get scant classroom attention otherwise, Diamond said.

“Before No Child Left Behind, it was much easier to get teahers to integrate the material because they had more flexibility,” she said. “But the minute they stopped testing in social studies, and the emphasis became reading and writing, there seemed to be less emphasis on government.”

Material for teachers includes several different topics, with study questions for each.

Under the heading of “My Vote Gives Me Power,” for example, students might discuss questions like what does voting accomplish? Why are so many people apathetic? What happens when people do not vote?

When they talk about “I Continue To Make A Difference,” they can discuss whether candidates really keep all of those campaign promises they make before an election, and how they can hold candidates accountable once they are in office.

When Diamond first brought her experience as a government teacher to Kids Voting in 1999, the students went with their parents to real polling places, before or after school.

“Logistically,” she said, “it was a challenge. If the adults were in the gym, we were in a hallway close to them. The idea was for Mom and Dad to get the kids involved in learning about the election as a family affair.”

Now, they cast their ballots during the school day, via computer, with different sets of ballots for kids at varying grade levels – the older the child, the more items on the ballot. The program involves 230,000 area students at 420 schools; nationwide 1 million kids are voting in the program. Results will be released Tuesday night after local polls close at 7 p.m.

Diamond said that in general, results of the kids’ balloting has been pretty close to the real thing, though voter turnout is generally higher. In 2008, 73 percent of eligible students voted.

“I don’t know if it’s because there is more excitement about it in school,” she said, “or whether it’s easier and it’s right there in school and kids don’t have to go anywhere.”

And when it’s an issue that children are more naturally interested in, she added, the results may be different from the ballot totals of the adults – for example, the puppy mill measure of 2010, which received overwhelming support from kids.

Junior poll workers

One of the schools taking part in the balloting this time around is the Al-Salam Day School, on Weidman Road in Ballwin across from Queeny Park. It has 160 Islamic students, up to 8th grade. Students who wanted to help out as junior poll workers had to write a job application essay, 200 words or less.

When they showed up for their training eight days before the election, they had various reasons for wanting to get involved. Meamuna Paracha, an eighth grader, said she thought it would be fun to work with younger children casting their ballots; Susan Albarcha, also in eighth grade, wanted to try something different.

Diamond explained the mechanics of the system to them – how to get the proper ballot up on the computer, how to show the students where to click to make their selections, then how to review their choices before they submit their final vote.

“We don’t want to help them vote,” she said, “but we do want to help them navigate the ballot. Hopefully, they are already going to know who they will be voting for.”

After the students complete the process, the poll workers are instructed to thank them for taking part and give them an “I Voted” sticker.

Social studies teacher Dave Roseman said the students pay attention to the electioneering, some more than others. “A lot depends on what they get at home,” he said.

The workers themselves said they haven’t necessarily decided fpr whom they will vote. The one thing they have noted is the tone of the campaign ads.

“I think they’re funny,” said sixth-grader Zehra Yaya. “They say so many bad things about each other.” She said she has made up her mind despite the ads, not because of them.

Added Kainat Niazi, an eighth grader: “They should say positive things.”

With families that come from countries like Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the students said they value the right to vote.

“You want to choose who will lead you,” Susan said.

“Every vote matters,” said Kainat. “We can make the world a better place.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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