A kid will cast my ballot

I broke my first federal law when I was 6 years old. It was 1972. My crime was voting. I was an underage, unregistered scofflaw.

My father was my accomplice.

He picked me up inside the voting booth and handed me the pencil. This is one of those visceral childhood memories: Voting, for me, will always smell of sharpened pencils and the chain saw oil on my father's shirt.

Boosted high up there in the voting booth, I marked my careful X next to George McGovern's name. I marched out, put our ballot in the box, and turned the crank. Now that's power.

They say early participation leads to a lifetime habit of voting. I was hooked right there.

In New Hampshire, early participation is almost unavoidable. Kids are carried to town meetings as babes in arms, weaned on warrants and bond issues. The candidates and campaign signs are as much a part of the landscape as stone walls and birches.

My 2-year-old friend Gavin toddled into day care the other morning, after hearing a candidate's speech on the radio and proclaimed: "It's a new day in America!"

Somebody wipe this kid's nose, and he'll be ready to hit the campaign trail.

Four years ago, during primary season, we were sitting in a pizzeria and my daughter - dressed in a leotard and purple winter boots, having come directly from ballet - was singing one of those tuneless songs that 4-year-olds sing. It went something like this: "Laa, la looo ... Big Bird ... la hum he ... Bill Bradley ... doo doo doo, John McCain."

Only in New Hampshire.

In New Hampshire, kids think it's normal to have presidential candidates visit their classrooms, stop in at their local bookstores, and work the crowd at the church's pancake breakfast.

My daughter has a notebook in which she composes her questions for the candidates and collects autographs and campaign stickers. She merrily rides along to the campaign event, sets herself up in the second row, and asks Gen. Wesley Clark exactly what he would do to make schools better for kids. She high-fives John Kerry. Asks Howard Dean if he could make it so there'd be no more war in Iraq. In the rest of the country, politicians get by with kissing babies. Here they have to answer their foreign-policy questions.

I tell her that it's not like this everywhere. That kids in California, New York, and even in nearby Massachusetts don't get to meet the people running for president. Don't get to shake their hands and ask them questions.

This seems preposterous to her.

"But Mom ... how do they decide who to vote for?"

Good question.

But somehow, the youngest voters still manage to miss the point. Even here - in a state where politics smack you between the eyes - only about one-quarter to one-third of eligible 18- to 25-year-olds vote in presidential elections. That's better than in much of the rest of the country. But it's still pathetic.

Maybe the trick - as much as voting projects and straw polls in elementary schools, as much as boosting the civics curriculum - is true early involvement.

My daughter was a 4-year-old unregistered scofflaw when she cast her first presidential primary ballot. I lifted her up and handed her the pencil, and she marked her careful X in the box.

Now, at 8, she is a seasoned political pragmatist. Tuesday, she'll cast our ballot again - and she may even be tall enough to do it without a boost. She won't be eligible to vote for another decade. But she's already hooked.

On primary day four years ago, as we were getting ready to go and vote, Fiona was bundling a doll up in a coat and blanket.

"Mommy?" she asked. "Can I bring my baby with me?"

"Of course. Why?"

She came into the room, cradling her doll, the very picture of civic solemnity. "Because, Mommy. I need to teach my baby about voting."

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