The two 7-year-olds lean over the Kids Voting ballot, reading carefully.
“Should wearing a helmet while bike riding be required by law?” Emma Tilson reads aloud. Easy one: She checks the “yes” box, and so does her pal, India Good-Prochaska. For another question, though, they fall bak on the old eeny-meeny-miney-mo method: “Should there be a teen center near every high school?” But the next question elicits a “That would be cool!” from India: “Should voting over the Internet be one way that people could vote in every election?”
The last question — should North Carolina borrow $3.1 billion to fix up its universities and communities and pump funds into University of North Carolina Public Television — stumps the two girls … until Emma’s mom, Karen Ramshaw, mentions that their favorite cartoon character is part of UNC-TV’s “Just for the Kids” programming.
“Oh, yeah! We love Arthur!” Emma exclaims, checking the “yes” box.
With that, the two girls quadruple-fold their ballots and drop them in the Kids Voting box.
Unlike the majority of America’s adult, registered voters, they have just done their part to voice opinions on key issues.
“More people need to vote,” declares Kids Voting volunteer Arthur Matthews (no relation to the girls’ beloved cartoon character). A plumber by trade, Matthews had driven up to Asheville from Raleigh, where he lives, to man the Kids Voting booth at the North Carolina Mountain State Fair. That’s a long way to drive for any cause, but Kids Voting, he explains, is particularly important: “It’s aimed at getting into kids’ minds the responsibility of being in a democracy. You can’t complain if you don’t vote!”
Nine counties in North Carolina and 38 states in the United States enjoy active Kids Voting programs, says Maria Pilos-Narron, executive director of the recently opened Buncombe County office. Kids Voting started in Arizona in 1988, after a group of businessmen visited Costa Rica and noticed that the tiny country routinely coaxes 80 percent of its residents to the polls.
Compare that to U.S. figures: A mere 48.4 percent of eligible Americans voted in the 1996 presidential election; less than 20 percent of our 18-to-24-year-olds voted; and, in many major American cities, the mayor is elected by less than 10 percent of those eligible to vote.
Kids Voting aims to change those numbers. “What you do as a child, you’ll do as an adult,” reasons Pilos-Narron. In short, Kids Voting organizers hope the program will instill in young people the habits of critical thinking, awareness and involvement in the democratic process. “The mission is to get the kids to become lifetime, informed voters,” she continues.
The program targets all school-age kids, from kindergarten through high school. School lessons and projects that teachers can apply in the classroom are available — such as having students scour local newspapers for election news, or evaluate presidential candidates. In the case of local high-school students, there’s also the chance to meet up with pals and watch/analyze the presidential debates at Asheville Pizza and Brewing Company on Oct. 3 and 17 (assuming the candidates settle on a debate schedule).
But the real feather in the program’s cap comes on election day (Nov. 7): Every precinct in Buncombe County will have Kids Voting booths, where kids can pitch their own ballots in the local, state and national elections — and have the results reported to CNN for broadcast — Pilos-Narron reports. And it’s hoped that the kids will bring their parents — who’ll have no excuse not to vote — to the polls (and, thus, raise Buncombe’s dismal voting statistics: Only one in 11 of those registered voted in the 2000 primary this past May, and a mere one in seven voted in last fall’s general election.
“We hope to get kids to the polls, along with their parents,” emphasizes Susan Fisher, who chairs the Asheville Board of Education. It’s estimated that, in counties with Kids Voting programs, voter turnout among adults increases by 5 to 10 percent. “If the kids get psyched,” notes Fisher, “they’ll go home and get their parents psyched up about the election. Hopefully, Kids Voting will increase kids’ involvement in their community, and get their parents involved.”
Pilos-Narron also emphasizes that the program is nonpartisan: “This is for the kids and their future. If we want to say democracy is great, then voting is important.”