By Oscar Wolfe
As most of you know, this election has not really been what we would consider a well… a typical election. As the campaigning has proceeded, I’ve noticed a common misconception among adults. They think that they’re the only ones who like politics and want to vote. Guess what? They’re wrong. Kids can be just as, if not more, active in politics than adults. We want to vote, too!
Since politics is my favorite subject (even more than astronomy), I decided to do an article on Kids Voting USA, a national nonpartisan organization that tries to get kids more involved in politics and elections. They even give kids the chance to fill out their own ballots! This is really the first presidential election where I’ve been old enough to follow along. So, even though this is actually my fourth presidential election, it feels like a whole new world to me. Here’s my conversation with Judy Farmer, president of Kids Voting Minneapolis.
Could you tell us a little about yourself?
Before I did Kids Voting, I was on the Minneapolis School Board for 27 years. A long time. So I know quite a bit about the schools. Before that, I helped some other parents and teachers start Marcy Open School in Minneapolis, and I worked there for several years. My children went there. And a long, long time ago, I was a social studies teacher.
Did you start Kids Voting Minneapolis?
It was started by someone at the Star Tribune—in response to a request by the mayor. The story of how it started nationally is pretty interesting. There were two businessmen from Arizona who went on vacation to Costa Rica. And while they were there, there was an election. They noticed that whole families went to vote together. All the kids. And everybody dressed up. Like it was a very important thing. And the voter turnout in Costa Rica is always over 90 percent. These businessmen thought, well of course it’s over 90 percent—the kids go to vote every time with their parents. So when they grow up, they know, when there’s an election you go vote! And so the businessmen came back to the United States and decided well, maybe if we had kids voting with their parents, they’d learn all about voting, and when they grow up, they’ll vote. So that’s how it got started.
What is your ultimate goal?
Well, our ultimate goal would be to have students in kindergarten through 12th grade really learn more about our democracy and the importance of voting. Now ideally, we would have teachers do a lot of this in the classroom. But social studies as a subject, which includes learning about your government ,has gotten sort of squeezed out, especially in the elementary schools, because there’s so much emphasis on reading and writing and math. So we are hoping that by giving kids the experience of actually going to a polling place, seeing adults voting, seeing the machines, seeing the election officials and having a chance to cast their own ballots will help them understand the importance of voting. Our motto is: Vote young, vote forever.
“Our motto is: Vote young, vote forever.”
Where do you do this? How do you get to the kids?
Well we publicize it in as many ways as we can figure out to do. And we meet with groups in the community. We work very closely with the city elections department. As students come to the polls to vote with their parents, our volunteers assist the students—they have their own voting booth, their own ballot, they put their ballot in the box, they get an “I voted” sticker, just like the adults. At the end of the evening, we get all the ballots collected and make sure they’re all clean (sometimes kindergarteners draw pictures on the ballot). Then we take them to the University of Minnesota to do the scanning, and record the vote. We post the information on our website so you can see the results of the kids who voted in Minneapolis—by school, and by grade. Kids really like that.
I’m just curious, because I want to do this too, do you do Kids Voting in the suburbs?
There are quite a lot of school districts and communities around the state that do kids voting. I think a lot of high schools throughout the state are doing elections. The Secretary of State’s office is even sending some materials.
Are the results of the kids’ votes normally the same as the general election?
In Minneapolis, it is usually pretty much the same. Sometimes the kids’ vote is higher for certain candidates than the adult vote. But usually the same candidate comes out on top.
Do you think there should be a lower voting age?
I’ve thought about that. I think it might be interesting to try having a lower voting age, say to 16, for local elections— school board, mayor, city council. I’m not sure it makes as much sense for state and national elections.
Would you say kids are more interested in this election that in other elections?
In 2012, kids were very interested. In 2008, too. When it’s a presidential election, they’re just more interested. This election, there is a lot of interest. Why do you think that is?
Well, with other elections, it’s very formal, whereas with this election, it’s reached out to a lot more than the typical. Neither of the candidates are that…liked. So, they’re both trying to reach out to everyone they can. So how can kids really get involved?
There are kids who get involved in political campaigns when they’re in seventh or eighth grade. You can learn a whole lot that way.
Yeah, I’ve been following this election pretty closely because it’s the first one where I’m really old enough to understand it all. So i’ve signed up for emails from the candidates I like.
That’s a good idea. There are a lot of activities schools can encourage. Kids could take a survey of neighborhood—ask, “Do you plan to vote?” Kids can watch the media, analyze and critique it: are they telling the truth? Can you tell? There are lots of things you can do, you don’t have to work on a campaign.
How should parents deal with it when kids ask about politics?
We did a lot of dinner table conversations when our kids were growing up. We talked a lot about current events—not just at election time. I think that having conversations about what is going on in your city, in your town, in the state, in the country, in the world— all those things are very helpful in getting kids in the habit of thinking about the issues.
What is Kids Voting expecting this election?
This year, we’re going to have many more students in Minnesota voting than we did in 2012. We’ll have something like 15,000 kids voting.
What advice do you have for kids who want to get involved in the election or Kids Voting?
It’s always good to go to websites of political parties and candidates. They always have ways to contact them. In a campaign, candidates are always doing mailings, so there are always envelopes to stuff. That puts you in touch with people at the candidate’s headquarters— the conversations you’ll hear, the people you’ll meet—that hooks people! There are also non-partisan races, like school board. Volunteer to help. That’s a good way to get involved!