We’ve been hearing a lot about early voting this election cycle — voting before election day — and having worked on numerous recounts, I have a lot of opinions about early voting, which I will keep to myself. Today I want to talk about a different kind of early voting — teaching children to vote. In our house, civic duty means two things: you vote in every election, and you attend jury duty with a smile. Also, in our house, to teach important lessons about being a grownup, my parents took us along to see them firsthand. Or, perhaps that was because they both worked a lot. In any case, it means I am now a grownup myself and I have not missed an election (primaries and special elections included) since my birth. Since I grew up in Washington state, that means a LOT of elections.
Before Washington state went to an all-mail ballot system, our precinct’s polling place was a nearby elementary school. Because my parents worked late into most evenings, voting day was a very special day when we got up early in order to go to the polls before school. Our precinct (and I believe all of King County, if not all of Washington) had child size voting booths as well. While my parents were in line to cast their votes, I was in line to cast mine. Sometimes the ballots were from historic elections, sometimes from old Washington elections, and very occasionally, from the current election. I’ve voted for Abraham Lincoln more than once in my life. The point is, the practice was more than babysitting so my parents could have some peace in the voting booths (which I didn’t always give them anyway). It started a life-long habit of making voting day a special day, showing up to the polls, and exercising my right to be heard.
When we were very young, punching the ticket for Honest Abe on Very Special Election Morning (in Washington state, 4+ times a year) was about the extent of it. As we grew up, my parents made the exercise more complex. We would sit with the voters guide and go race by race and talk about who was in them, what they stood for, and why we might want one candidate or the other. We did the same for initiatives and referenda, both plentiful on the average Washington ballot. An added layer of complexity as we aged was the endorsements candidates received, what they meant, and how to incorporate those into our decisions. My parents rarely vote straight tickets and they rarely vote precisely the same as each other, so these voters guide discussions were particularly rich.
So how do you accomplish “early voting” with your own children? Here are some ideas:
- Take your children to the polls with you. Spend the car ride (or walk) talking about how voting works and why voting is important.
- Talk through the voters guide (or if there isn’t one in your state, find something published by a local group like League of Women Voters, or others, although these tend to be partisan and the purpose of this exercise is understanding WHY we vote, not WHAT to vote).
- Have your child fill out a mock ballot (generally available online from your state or county elections board) and ask them why they made the choices they did — ask for their thoughts, don’t tell them they’re wrong. Your political beliefs have evolved too, right?
I’m now an adult, living on my own in a state far, far away. Here in Pennsylvania, I’ve been shocked to discover there is no such thing as a statewide voters guide and extremely little publicity about when election day is and what to expect on your ballot. Certainly, Nov. 6 is no surprise, but primaries and non-presidential elections can pop up out of nowhere here. Even as a highly motivated, regular voter, I have to exert quite a bit of effort to find out when and where to vote, what I will be voting for, and why. I’m only now prepared to do that in each and every election because my parents were slowly teaching that throughout my whole childhood.
Children are keen observers of their environments. They believe what they see, and they learn what they practice. Teaching habits like voting behavior starts in childhood, because it starts with you, the important adults in their lives. I’m not going to convince you to vote — you should be voting, every single election, period. It is your civic duty, your obligation as a citizen of this country, and indeed, your obligation to that child.
Notice the marked absence of anything about gender in this post? You’re right, but Fair Play is about equality and fairness in childhood generally, and one of the best ways to preserve fairness in this country is by exercising the right to vote.
This is the first part of a two part series about civic participation. The second part will be posted on election day and will address children’s participation in democracy more generally — including writing and calling representatives, and participating in campaigns.