Child-Care Centers Help Sign Up Voters

POLITICAL activists seeking to get out the vote this year are enlisting the aid of an unusual group of allies: children. By bringing voter registration to places where parents and children regularly go, advocates hope to increase the political awareness of both generations.

This week more than 1,100 KinderCare child-care centers in 40 states are doubling as voter-registration sites. The drive, conducted in partnership with the League of Women Voters, is designed especially for parents of children in the centers, although anyone can register. Hours are 7 to 9 a.m. and 4 to 6 p.m.

"Almost all of our parents are either single parents or part of a household where both parents are working," explains Jay Gardner, chief operating officer of KinderCare in Montgomery, Ala. "This makes the lives of the adults a little easier."

Mr. Gardner says he hopes the campaign will also help children to understand why voting is important and why people must register first. "If you're four years old, that's a strange concept," he says. "Most of our children are preschoolers. They see candidates on television, and they wonder what it's all about. This is a way of contributing to their education."

In Florida, a year-long effort to register voters and galvanize political support for children has already added 80,000 new voters. The statewide campaign, "Vote Kids '92," has established more than 4,500 new registration sites in child-care centers, schools, health centers, and workplaces. Jack Levine, executive director of the nonprofit Florida Center for Children and Youth in Tallahassee, is optimistic that his group will exceed its goal of 100,000 new voters. Thousands of volunteers are also canvassi ng neighborhoods and attending political forums to educate candidates and voters about the needs of children.

Another campaign combining registration and education, "Kids Voting USA" in Tempe, Ariz., centers around an 11-state pilot program. In addition to registering as many adults as possible, the project features classroom discussions on voting and elections for students from kindergarten through 12th grade.

On election day, while parents vote, children can enter separate polling booths in the precinct to cast unofficial ballots. Newspapers will report results of the children's election.

Research shows that in 1990, "Kids Voting USA" increased voter turnout in Arizona by 3 percent. As Marilyn Evans, president and executive director, explains, "The kids are not only encouraging their parents to become registered, they're encouraging their parents to become informed."

At a time when more than 70 million Americans who are eligible to vote remain unregistered, advocates emphasize the importance of these efforts. "It is not too early for us to start talking to even four-year-olds to say, `This is what an election is all about,' " Ms. Evans says. "If we can establish early on in children the value of being part of a democracy, and help them realize they have a responsibility to be informed and involved, we will help them become active members of the electorate. If we incr ease the discussion, and what comes out of it is increased involvement, we'll have a much more effective democracy."

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