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Apathy Spurs Efforts Seeking To Engage Future Voters in the Electoral Process

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With public disenchantment with politicians on the rise and voter turnout on the decline, a number of organizations are seeking to engage a future generation of voters--today's elementary and secondary students--in the electoral process.

"We're actually doing more this year than ever because the need is greater,'' said Lee Kravitz, the editorial director of Scholastic Inc.'s social-studies magazines. "Especially this year, when there's so much upheaval in the political system, it's a good time to connect young people to the system and to the democratic process.''

A number of groups are seeking to cultivate children's interest in the elections, including television networks, magazines, and several private organizations launched by individual citizens concerned about voter apathy.

Over the past few decades, the percentage of eligible 18- to 24-year-olds who vote has declined considerably. In the 1972 Presidential election, 49.6 percent of eligible 18- to 24-year-olds voted, according to Census Bureau data. In the 1988 election, their participation reached an all-time low of 36.2 percent.

"It's reached a crisis point,'' Mr. Kravitz said.

While Scholastic, an educational-publishing company founded in 1920, has long sought to teach youngsters about electoral issues, Mr. Kravitz said the firm began this year experimenting with new approaches.

For instance, students were asked earlier this year to submit questions that they would like to ask the President. From a pool of some 7,000 entries, twelve students were selected to participate in a "Kids' Caucus.''

Over the course of two days in New York City this past summer, the students developed a youth platform, which they presented to party leaders at both the Democratic and Republican conventions.

One of the caucus's members, 15-year-old Kelly Aldrich from Marysville, Wash., got a taste of real-life politics when she was chosen to give a speech seconding the Presidential nomination of former Gov. Jerry Brown of California.

And although Scholastic has conducted mock Presidential elections through its Junior Scholastic magazine since 1972, this is the first year it will conduct one through the majority of its 28 publications. It anticipates that as many as nine million students will cast ballots.

'Getting Their Voice Heard'

Numerous other organizations will conduct their own mock elections this fall. One of the more innovative simulations is being coordinated by Kids Voting, a four-year-old Arizona-based organization.

On Election Day, primary and secondary students in 11 states will cast mock ballots at actual polling sites.

Not only does the program teach students about voting, said Marilyn Evans, the president of Kids Voting, but it also increases voter turnout by impelling many of the students' parents who might not have voted to do so.

Kids Voting was founded in Tempe, Ariz., by three couples who had learned of a similar program in Costa Rica while on a fishing trip there in 1987.

The first Kids Voting election, in 1988, took place in only a few precincts. During the second one, in 1990, some 131,000 students cast ballots, and brought 30,000 voting adults with them. An Arizona State University study found that Kids Voting had raised voter turnout in the state by 2.6 percent that year.

This year, Kids Voting, which has received more than $250,000 from the Knight Foundation, will launch pilot projects in 10 other states.

"This effort has brought excitement into the classroom,'' Ms. Evans said.

In addition to getting a chance to "vote,'' students participating in the program receive six to 12 hours of related lessons in their classrooms, which may include such activities as role-playing exit-pollsters and news reporters, or tabulating mock ballots.

"It's very experiential,'' Ms. Evans observed. And, most important, she said, "They get to have their voice heard.''

Next year, the group plans to include municipal elections for the first time, and, by 2000, it hopes to have projects in all 50 states.

Powerlessness to Participation

One of the more established election simulations is the National Student/Parent Mock Election, which has been conducted every two years since 1980, and which will be held this year on Oct. 29.

In the 1988 Presidential election, some 3.5 million students and parents cast ballots at participating schools. Each school phoned the results in to a state coordinator, who in turn reported them to the group's national office in Washington.

As in 1988, the tabulation of the election results will be broadcast live that evening on C-Span, the public-affairs cable-television channel. CNN news anchor Susan Rookwill host the broadcast.

"Our purpose is to turn the sense of powerlessness that keeps young people and their parents from going to the polls to the power of participation,'' said Gloria Kirshner, the organization's president.

In addition to supporting the mock election, C-Span also devoted the September issue of its monthly teachers' guide to election programming and ideas for related classroom activities.

Another cable channel, Nickelodeon, will host its own toll-free phone-in mock Presidential election, "Kids Pick the President,'' from 5 to 8 P.M. Eastern time on Oct. 23.

The Public Broadcasting Service will offer a number of programs of interest to educators and their students this fall.

At 4 P.M. on Oct. 12, it will broadcast "American Marathon: Running for the White House.'' Judy Woodruff, the Washington correspondent for "The MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour,'' will host the program, designed to serve as an overview of Presidential politics for 9- to 15- year-olds.

And several episodes of the PBS documentary series "Frontline'' will spotlight electoral issues, including one at 9 P.M. on Oct. 21 entitled "The Choice,'' which will explore the candidates' backgrounds and positions.

In addition, the weekly newsmagazine Newsweek published a special election issue last week. Its "Just for Kids'' issue features articles on the candidates' platforms, the history of Presidential campaigns, and what a typical day in the life of a candidate is like.

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