When kids vote, parents tend to turn out, too

They're a tough crowd, this group of seventh- and eighth-grade voters. Technically, all 50 are ineligible to participate in Tuesday's election, but that doesn't make them any less opinionated - or vocal.

"Why do we have 'Kids Voting' when our votes aren't even counted?" demands one. Actually, his vote will be counted. But it's true that it won't really count.

The ballots cast Tuesday by young people in this town - home of the rock upon which the Pilgrims first stepped in 1620 - won't swing the presidential election. Nor will they have any effect on the race for state senator, or even the contest for local sheriff. The results will be tallied, though, and printed in the local paper - a set of numbers that are interesting and informative, if without any real impact.

Despite the skepticism voiced by the social studies students here at Plymouth South Middle School, the fact that they're taking time to study the candidates and issues may mean more than they realize.

At least that's the theory behind the Kids Voting USA project adopted by their school. The program was begun in a Phoenix suburb in 1988, after three businessmen on a fishing trip to Costa Rica learned of that country's 80 percent voter turnout rate. Costa Ricans credit such high turnout to a tradition of parents taking their children to the polls, exposing them early on to the electoral process.

But what attracts some schools to the project is evidence that parents are actually drawn more deeply into the electoral process along with their children.

Mock elections are held by any number of schools and organizations across the country this time of year. Kids Voting, however, enables children to replicate their parents' experience, voting in the same places they do, using ballots identical to those marked by adults - save the photographs added to the junior versions for easy candidate identification.

On this recent Thursday afternoon, two classes sit, reasonably rapt, through a presentation by the local president of the League of Women Voters.

Incredulous at a comparison between the Kids Voting process and learning to drive with a permit and parent in the front seat, another student presses:

"When you said you were going to count the kids' votes, what did you mean by that? Do you get money if you win?" No, but the school in town with the highest voter turnout does get a trophy.

In spite of the bravado and flurry of belligerent questions just two weeks before Election Day, Tuesday over 6,000 of Plymouth's more than 9,000 students are expected to crowd the town's 14 precincts.

That's considerably higher than the national turnout, which hovers around 50 percent. Five thousand Plymouth kids cast their ballots in the last presidential election. In 1996, the first year Plymouth participated in Kids Voting, they had the highest turnout of any of the programs nationwide. Today, 4.3 million students are involved with Kids Voting.

Before school, beginning at 7 a.m., and resuming again once school lets out, high school students will file into polling places. A parent must accompany those in the lower grades. Or, as the townspeople here like to say is frequently the case, students will be escorting their parents to the polls - which happens more often than parents would have you believe, says Janice Arponen, president of the home and school association and mother of two girls at the school.

Besides cultivating the next generation of voters starting at the youngest age, Kids Voting inspires what researchers call the "trickle-up effect."

At Stanford University in California, Michael McDevitt was part of a team that in 1994 studied the impact of Kids Voting on families in nearby San Jose.

What they discovered, he says, were students so captivated and enthusiastic about the election campaign that they were bringing the discussion home - "nudging" their parents into paying more attention to current events in order to keep up. The effect was especially pronounced in lower-income families.

A pollster at Arizona State University found voter turnout increases by 3 to 5 percent in communities that use Kids Voting.

Plymouth in 2000 had a very respectable 74 percent turnout. Town Clerk Laurence Pizer expects that number will grow to 80 percent in this hotly contested election year. While Mr. Pizer says that it would take a cadre of professional pollsters to determine the true effect Kids Voting has had on Plymouth, he readily admits, "There's certainly a synergy."

"The more interest there is in the election in general, the more it builds on itself. We have had specific instances in which parents have said, 'I'm here because my kids shamed me into coming.' "

After the larger assembly disperses, Andrue Coombes is one of a smaller gathering of eighth-grade boys who are surprisingly well informed, and enthusiastic enough, about the prospect of performing their civic duty.

They say they're disappointed by how little air time either Bush or Kerry has devoted to education, an issue close to them: Their sewing teacher has a high-tech "smart board" in her class, money they think could have been better spent on smaller classes, books, or sports.

One intimates he'll vote for Kerry, another says he's for Bush. For lack of certainty and any other candidate to back, a third says he'll vote for Ralph Nader, who's running as an independent - apparently undeterred by the fact that he'll have to write him in. Mr. Nader isn't on the ballot in Massachusetts. A few remain undecided.

But when Daniel Munroe tosses off a comment about the election not mattering, Andrue makes a face. He quickly flashes a thumbs up sign, declaring: "Yea democracy." Andrue is the last out the door. As he marches into the four-year-old school's unscuffed pink and white halls, he swipes the remaining stack of League of Women Voters guides, balancing them atop his head.

"I gave them to my history teacher," he says later. "I think she used them for class."

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