Until the presidential election went into nail-biting overtime, Martin Plissner's 12- and 13-year-old children were not the least bit interested. Campaign issues like a prescription-drug benefit went right over their heads.
But suddenly, when Americans awoke the morning of Nov. 8 without a president-elect, everything changed at the Plissner house. "The butterfly ballot? They're experts," says this former political director of CBS News.
And his kids aren't the only ones. On a recent day, Mr. Plissner heard fifth-graders debating on the steps of the local elementary school, as if "they'd both been given talking points by the campaigns."
This ongoing election may be frustrating to many Americans, but it's had an unexpected side benefit: It's serving as a real-life civics lesson for the country's young people.
Interviews with kids reveal they're not turned off by the recount drama, but excited - coming home from school to ask their moms about the latest development, or getting up to watch the morning news each day. And while they may not understand all the ins and outs of the Electoral College, they've at least learned that it exists - and that, as this race shows, every vote counts.
Political observers see this interest as a positive sign, hoping that today's schoolyard debates will turn into tomorrow's voting-booth returns. Considered alongside another trend - that Internet use in this election tripled from 1996 - it raises the possibility that "youth and the Internet will come together and steer more participation," says Thomas Mann, a political expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Certainly, the closeness of this election has inspired many of tomorrow's would-be voters. "I think, in general, more people will vote in the next election, because, like in Florida, they know that every vote counts," says Kevin Henneberger, a sophomore at Lake Highlands High School in Dallas. "I don't want to be the one that didn't vote."
Likewise, Cloie Harnois, a senior at Nipmuc Regional High School in Upton, Mass., points out that Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush were at one point separated by a mere four votes in New Mexico. "Wow," she says. "One person could have changed the presidency."
It's not like the country's young people have a complete understanding of everything that's been happening, or even a balanced view. They tend to see things in black and white, and are heavily influenced by their parents, friends, and teachers.
A quick quiz on the vocabulary of this election produces some pretty creative - though not too far off the mark - answers:
The popular vote?
"Gore won the popular vote. It kind of means he's more popular," says Brandon Griffin, a sixth-grader at Eaton Fundamental Middle School in Hampton, Va.
"Is that the little thingy - the little thingies that hang?" asks Cloie. She says she learned about them on "Saturday Night Live."
The Electoral College?
"People vote however people in the precinct voted. And the state is made of precincts, and gets a certain number of votes based on population. I can't remember why, but I think I'm against it," says Aubrey Rawlins, a sophomore at Woodside Priory School, in Woodside, Calif.
On the other hand, there are plenty of solid lessons these budding political students have learned.
The person who gets the most votes, for instance, isn't necessarily the one who becomes president. Also, not everyone has the same kind of ballot. As Sally Schwartz, a sophomore at Menlo-Atherton High in Menlo Park, Calif., explains, some people punch holes, and some people connect lines. Aubrey learned about the "lesser parties," like the Greens, and Kevin weighed in with the observation that the final selection isn't made until the electors vote Dec. 18.
Armed with their newfound knowledge, these kids are not short on opinions.
"I think we should have a basic ballot for everywhere," states Elizabeth Parisi, a sixth-grader at the Janney Elementary School here. Elizabeth is not alone. According to a recent Gallup poll, nearly 70 percent of Americans believe a universal ballot would eliminate confusion in the voting booth.
But Elizabeth, who can explain the Electoral College with awe-inspiring precision, is going against the grain when she argues to keep the system as it is. Most young people interviewed, as well as nearly two-thirds of Americans (according to Gallup), think the popular vote should be what counts.
The neck-and-neck aspect of this year's race drew some kids in even before the recounts began. On election night, Aubrey was beside himself with excitement, dancing on the sofa, and calling out the updated tallies to his mom.
A reality check on all of this enthusiasm comes from Cloie's 21-year-old sister, Melora, who just voted for the first time. "I'm very big on being in a democracy," she says, "and I think, if you don't give your say, you might as well live in Cuba." But her views are more the exception than the rule among her peers, she says. "A lot of people my age don't get it. Even though they've had it in civics class, it's just notes."
Still, she found herself yelling as she was driving along listening to a radio talk show. As she tells it, a caller said the dragging on of the election made him embarrassed to be an American. "How dare he?" she says. "Nobody changes power in peace like we do. If this were in another country, there'd be a military coup by now."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society