To get more people out to vote on Nov. 7, maybe someone should offer free pizza at the polls.
The combination of free pizza and extra school credit seemed to work for the Asheville Pizza and Brewing Company, which hosted Kids Voting/Buncombe County on Oct. 3, the night of the first debate between presidential candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore.
“Kids Voting is a good thing. [Voting] is an important thing for kids to know about, and [this is] a fun environment,” said T.C. Roberson junior Matt Canniff-Kuhn, several minutes before Bush and Gore went at it on the big screen. Seated beside him in a big cushy booth were four of his high-school pals, chowing down on the free pizza and soda made possible by a grant received by the local group responsible for bringing the nationwide program to Buncombe.
On Nov. 7, Canniff-Kuhn and other young people in the county will be able to visit the polls alongside their parents and vote on special ballots; the results of such Kids Voting efforts around the country will be reported to national news giant CNN. And one local teen, Zack Lazar, has been selected to represent Kids Voting as a media runner for the presidential debate at Wake Forest University.
“[Kids Voting] gives kids a chance to make their vote. And it tackles voter apathy: Their parents will go to the polls with them,” observed Roberson junior Blakely Whildon.
“It gives kids a chance to get into it — to get in to politics,” said pal Matt Farrell.
“It gives [us] a chance to learn about politicians,” Tracey Young interjected.
Moments before the debate started, Mountain Xpress asked the teens which way they were leaning: Bush or Gore?
“This is kind of a Gore table,” Canniff-Kuhn admitted.
But before he could fully voice his concerns about Bush, Whildon latched onto the issue of the death penalty, sparking a discussion among her friends.
And at the next table, Asheville High School students politely noted that they were attending the Kids Voting debate-watch to get extra credit in their U.S. history class, although Nora Tramm pointed out: “I actually would be watching this anyway. I’m leaning away from George W. Bush. But there’s no third-party candidate represented [in the debate tonight]. That sucks.”
Jonathan “Fish” Fisher tossed in a plug for his pet project: gathering enough teen and youth volunteers to staff the Kids Voting polls on election day. He also reflected sagely on Tramm’s third-party complaint: “I was really into [Republican] John McCain during the primary. But lately, I’ve been researching Ralph Nader. This year, though, third-party candidates are going to hurt the Democrats. But in four years, they’ll play a big part.”
Dr. Patty Cutspec, director of community schools and public information for the Asheville City Schools, interrupted to urge the teens to look for three things in the debate: Does the candidate answer the questions put to him? How many questions are answered by another question, “in other words, diverted?” asked Cutspec. And third, “Look for their nonverbals.”
The teens were onto all that. When Gore launched into a happy-to-be-here response to moderator Jim Lehrer’s first question — What qualifies you for the presidency? — teens yelled out, “Answer the question!” And when Bush opened with, “We come from different places. … I’m from Texas,” they burst into laughter.
This wasn’t going to be an easy crowd. And mixed into the audience were many decidedly pro-Gore adults — though one yelled out, “Where’s Nader?”
The happy heckling continued, teens going “Ooh!” when Gore scored a good jab, or “Mrrow!” like a angry cat when Bush stuck it to “the man” with the “fuzzy math.” Quite a few teens and adults hooted and hollered when Bush appeared flustered, resorting to a “Gore invented the Internet” jab. But they were no more tolerant of Gore’s drilled-in promise to put Social Security funds into a “lock box,” and his oft-repeated allegation that Bush’s plan benefits the top 1 percent of wage earners in the United States. Still, they cheered when Gore promised to make up to $10,000 in college tuition deductible.
And several teens booed when Bush explained that the “at risk” label placed on many school children “means, basically, they can’t learn.”
“I can’t believe he said that,” remarked Farrell.
Still, when it was all said and done and the teens were making their exit, they offered snippets of their reactions to the debate.
“Gore was more prepared,” said Whildon. “He resembled JFK [in the 1960 presidential debate], when Kennedy was all relaxed and Nixon was all hot and sweaty.”
Gore’s nonverbal actions — sighing, laughing and interrupting Bush’s responses — didn’t impress the teens, although they did notice that the camera rarely zoomed in on Bush to catch his expressions during Gore’s comments. Emily Busey rolled her eyes about the language used by both men: “That whole ‘lock box’ and ‘fuzzy math’ thing!” she exclaimed.
Most of the teens said they thought Gore “won” the debate, though Caniff-Kuhn said: “It was kind of a Gore crowd here. I wish people would keep an open mind and listen.”
For more information about Kids Voting in Buncombe, call Maria Pilos-Narron at 250-4231 or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org. The project has a Web site at kidsvotingusa.org. Locally, volunteers are needed at the polls from 6 a.m.-8 p.m., to work two-and-a-half-hour shifts.