Voter up! Kids get poll smart. First whole-family approach dedicated to conquering voter apathy. PREPARING FOR NOVEMBERS TO COME
Mesa, Ariz. — ELEVEN-YEAR-OLD Matthew Maynard lives in one of the fastest-growing areas in the nation: Phoenix's East Valley. On weekdays Matthew trudges off to Jordan Elementary School, where he's just another youngster learning fractions and flute-a-phone. But come Nov. 8 - election day in the United States - Matthew will head off to a different place - a neighborhood church. There, while his parents vote, Matthew will, too.
He'll go into a separately designated area, mark a simulated ballot printed in either English or Spanish, and carry away a souvenir pencil with the words ``First Vote.'' Later, Matthew will listen for his specially tabulated results on local TV.
No matter who becomes president, though, the Maynards will have made history as voters in the election of '88 and as supporters of Kids Voting - the first whole-family approach in the US devoted to conquering voter apathy.
For several East Valley community leaders on a fishing holiday, Kids Voting turned out to be their biggest catch.
While vacationing in Costa Rica, they learned that for nearly 40 years, children in this Central American democracy have accompanied their parents to the polls and voted in mock elections. But the most illuminating and inspiring news was Costa Rica's impressive voter turnout: a phenomenal 90 percent!
To the Southwesterners, it seemed a case of ``monkey-see, monkey-do,'' with generation after generation of youngsters developing into model citizens. Could Costa Rica's triumph, they wondered, transfer to Arizona, a state ranking especially low - 46th nationwide - in voter turnout?
Back home, the combined enthusiasm of businessmen, educators, and journalists stimulated a $20,000 donation.
Yet before the project could proceed, it needed to hurdle one formidable obstacle: a state law stipulating that minors remain 50 feet from the polls. After some debate, the legislature passed a bill removing all restrictions.
As it now stands, Kids Voting targets some 28,000 students in four cities: Mesa, Tempe, Chandler, and Gilbert. The plan is to turn youngsters into lifetime voters by offering them school lessons on the democratic process and the opportunity of actually voting at the polls.
Program administrators also hope to increase adult voter turnout in the 65 participating precincts. Once kids get excited and informed, say Kids Voting supporters, parents will, too.
As an added hook, however, children in Grades 3 to 8 can vote only if accompanied by a parent. High school students, though permitted to vote alone, are encouraged to go with Mom or Dad.
Jean Hamlin, a resource specialist in Mesa Public Schools, helped create the classroom teaching guides, which focus on candidates, offices, platforms, and the rights and responsibilities of voters.
``We've been very careful to be nonpartisan,'' Ms. Hamlin says. ``Some parents expressed concern that teachers would promote their own candidates, so we've tried for balance.''
David Eagleburger, associate superintendent of Mesa Public Schools, believes that the hands-on approach of Kids Voting ``helps to desensitize the voting process, making it less intimidating for kids.''
Recently US Sens. Alan Cranston (D) of California and Dennis DeConcini (D) and John McCain (R) of Arizona introduced and helped pass a concurrent resolution on Kids Voting. In it they asked the Federal Election Commission to ``advise the Congress on the success of the [Kids Voting] program in increasing voter turnout.''
Senator Cranston, who is also sponsoring a national bill that would allow adults to register on election day, says, ``I hope the success in Arizona this fall will lead to the plan spreading elsewhere.''
Coming out on top, though, will probably mean coming up with the right numbers. No one knows this better than Bruce Merrill, a pollster and Arizona State University associate professor who has organized state campaigns throughout the country. Mr. Merrill intends to scientifically evaluate Kids Voting.
Over the next decade, he plans to track at least 1,000 children taking part in the pilot project, studying their voting habits in school and public elections.
``That would be a true test showing the value of this experiment,'' he says.
But for now, Merrill will compare the Kids Voting precincts with Arizona precincts having similar demographics but lacking the program.
``If those precincts don't see an upturn in voters, and ours do, then the inference is that the project positively affected turnout.''
Dee Sirkis of the Arizona League of Women Voters is cautiously optimistic. Before expanding the geographic scope of the program, she says, ``We must first see what the reactions of parents are, assess them, and see what changes must be made.''
Working out the logistics of Kids Voting takes commitment. Project administrators, for instance, still need to recruit and train 585 workers to man the polls.
Also, with the cooperation of Michael Harty, director of the Maricopa County Elections Department, Kids Voting personnel are busy rounding up additional space at the polling sites.
``I think it's an excellent program that helps young people get a better feeling for the electoral process,'' says Mr. Harty, whose enthusiasm for Kids Voting doesn't blind him to possible problems - one being extremely crowded polls.
Yet, even if adult turnout increases by 20 percent, as supporters of Kids Voting predict, Beverly Maynard won't mind the lines. She says it makes good sense for youngsters like her son Matthew to get a head start on decisionmaking.
``I'm impressed with Kids Voting,'' she says. ``I'd like to see it work.''