Civics Lesson

By Laura Miller — May 01, 1993 6 min read

On Election Day last fall, Lindsay Breen arrived early at her designated polling place in Chandler, Ariz., only to find it packed with scores of other voters. When she returned that afternoon for a second try, she still had to stand in a queue before experiencing, for the first time, the pride one feels after spending a few private moments in the polling booth.

Lindsay is only 10 years old, so her vote had no effect on the outcome of the election. But that didn’t prevent her from learning as much as she could about the candidates, the issues, and the election process in general before casting her decision.

The Goodman Elementary School 5th grader was one of thousands of students in 11 states who participated in Kids Voting USA, a nonprofit, nonpartisan voter-education program piloted in Arizona in 1988 and now spreading across the country. Students who take part in the program actually register to vote on a special roll kept by county officials. The project culminates on Election Day, when they go to the polling site and cast ballots alongside their parents. Within 24 hours, their votes are tallied and reported to the local media just like “real” votes.

“Before this [fall],” says Natasha Myers of Trevor G. Browne High School in Phoenix, “I didn’t know that much about the election process. But we started learning about this stuff, and I’m thinking, ‘I’m living here, I’m 18, and I’m about to enter the real world. I should know these things. I should know where my tax dollars are going.’”

Kids Voting USA targets students in kindergarten and all the way through high school and has prepared age-appropriate curricular materials on a wide range of topics. Unlike traditional mock elections, which seldom capture students’ interest beyond the hype of popular elections, Kids Voting aims for continuity, educating children throughout their school years about the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

The goal: By exposing students to six or seven national or local elections during their precollegiate years, voting will become a habit. And parents exposed to their children’s enthusiasm may be more likely to go to the polls themselves.

Ironically, the Kids Voting concept did not originate in this country. It was “discovered” coincidentally by three Arizona businessmen on a fishing trip in Central America. They heard that Costa Rica has an exceptionally high voter turnout—between 80 percent to 90 percent of eligible Costa Ricans consistently cast ballots, compared with less than 50 percent of eligible Americans and less than 20 percent of eligible 18- to 24-year-olds—and asked a local taxi driver for the secret.

His answer intrigued them. For more than 40 years, children in Costa Rica have actively participated in the election process. Learning about the issues in school, they bring their interest home with them; the family dinner table often becomes a forum for debate. On election day, the Costa Rican youngsters visit the polls and vote alongside their parents, after which their choices are tallied and reported to the media just like their parents’. Inspired, the three businessmen returned to Arizona and created Kids Voting USA.

Guy Parish, a social studies teacher at Browne High School in Phoenix and co-author of the Kids Voting curriculum, describes himself as a group-oriented teacher. “I like kids to hash things around,” he says, “so we geared the curriculum to utilize students’ critical-thinking skills.”

Participating teachers agree that the program’s curriculum is stimulating, and many say the project has motivated them to come up with their own exercises to promote active citizenship. Lindsay Breen’s teacher, who just happens to be her father, Michael Breen, organized a class debate on a pseudo state referendum that would require a deposit on beverage containers. Hosting speakers from both the Sierra Club and the Arizona Soft Drink Association, the 5th graders timed and monitored the proceedings. The class also staged a mock presentation of Good Morning America, in which the hosts, played by several students, grilled guests George Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot, also played by classmates.

“The Kids Voting material requires that you put in an extra amount of work,” Breen says. “But there was probably 100 percent consensus among my colleagues on the importance of what was being learned, a feeling that ‘my kids need to have this information.’ “

Anna Thomas, who teaches 1st grade at Matthews Elementary School outside of Charlotte, N.C., added a bit of make-believe to the curriculum to hook her students on politics. Thomas, modifying a nature unit she was teaching, instructed students to choose a wild animal and design a campaign as if their animals were running for president of the forest.

Linda Minton, a music teacher at Shumway Elementary School in Chandler, says the only difficulty in starting the Kids Voting program with young children, particularly those in kindergarten through 2nd grade, is that they often don’t know how to cope when their candidate or proposition loses. “These kids get excited, and they think, ‘Boy, he’s gonna win; I just know it,’” she says. “And then if their candidate doesn’t win, they’re very upset.”

That’s usually not the case with older students. David Decowski, an 8th grader at Mountainside Middle School in Scottsdale, Ariz., says he was disappointed but not terribly discouraged by the loss of his candidate—presidential hopeful, Ross Perot. David is already eagerly awaiting the next election.

Mountainside took a unique approach to the program. Students were divided into “houses,” with each group organizing and running a mock campaign for a designated candidate. Syd Golston, an 8th grade teacher at the school, says the method really demonstrated “the power of instruction.” Most kids tend to vote like their parents, she says, but, in a preliminary vote at Mountainside, most students voted for their “house” candidate instead. In the final election, she concedes, students tended to side with their parents. But the instruction, Golston says, helped students understand the issues.

Testimony from students seems to indicate that the program’s organizers have hit on a good thing. Seniors at Browne High School in Chandler, for example, believe the reason the voter turnout is so low in the United States, particularly among young voters, is that many people are simply unfamiliar with the government and the election process. The project attempts to address the problem, they say.

“Before, when I’d hear the word government, it was like, uh-oh!,” says Natasha Myers. “Now, I know about propositions and the electoral college. I feel more comfortable, and, when the next election comes, I think I’ll do pretty good.”

The program was not a resounding success with all students, however. Some, for example, couldn’t convince their parents to make it to the polls. Since kids can only vote if accompanied by a parent or guardian, such students miss the culminating activity.

Still, nearly 500,000 students nationwide took part in last fall’s election through the Kids Voting project. And a Kids Voting survey showed that the program brought roughly 88,000 adults to the polls who would not have gone otherwise.

“My father was always big on elections,” Natasha says, “but my mother never went. One day, I went home and engaged my mother in a discussion. It captured her so much that she said, ‘I’m going to go register to vote.’ I’ve always felt that my mother’s vote was just as important as my father’s, so I felt great about that.”

Administrators of Kids Voting USA, which is headquartered in Tempe, Ariz., hope the project will be in every state by the year 2000. In the meantime, many of the students who participated last fall can’t wait for the next election.

“I want to have a voice; I want to speak up,” says Natasha. “We are the younger generation, and, maybe if we have a voice, things will change.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 1993 edition of Teacher as Civics Lesson