Teach Your Children How to Vote

With the clock ticking toward the presidential election, why not make plans to take your child?

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On Election Days growing up in Tallahassee, Fla., Barrett Campbell would get picked up from school by his mom, with brother and sister in tow, and head to the polls. His mother used the opportunity as a mini civics lesson, instructing the kids on the candidates and issues. Campbell, now 25, left the polls with a sticker on his shirt and an important lesson in mind—how to vote. Campbell has voted since he turned 18, including in 2000 when he was one of the notorious Florida absentee voters, helping swing the state in the direction of his pick for the presidency, George W. Bush.

And he isn't alone. "The single most important factor in whether young people vote in their first or second eligible election is whether their parents vote," says Eric Plutzer, a Pennsylvania State University political science professor.

With the primary countdown clock ticking toward the presidential election in November, why not make plans to take your child, a young neighbor, or a family friend to the polls, regardless of their age or eligibility? While they may not be able to push down a lever or select a candidate from the touch-screen, they will get a taste of the task and may be more encouraged to vote in the future. Young voting generally turns into lifelong voting. "Once people start voting, they don't stop," says Director Peter Levine of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. "It's a habit, and there's a lot of statistics supporting that."

Online registration. It may also help shatter the stereotypes surrounding young voters, mainly that they don't show up. According to recent statistics from Rock the Vote, that's not true. Voter turnout among 18-to-29-year-olds was significantly up in 2004 and 2006. "It's just really hard to rebut conventional wisdom, even when the facts show it's not the case," says Kat Barr of Rock the Vote.

There are many excuses people give for why they don't vote. Registration used to be an issue, but now online registration, like the new user-friendly tool on Rock the Vote's website, has made it easier. Another excuse is that the whole process seems intimidating. In his research, Plutzer points out that most young people's peers have never voted. "Their friends cannot assure them that voting has been easy, enjoyable, or satisfying," he writes. And bringing someone to the polls as a child—or a young adult—can make the process look less daunting. "There's nothing mystical or scary about it," says Connie Flanagan, a professor of youth civic development at Penn State. "So a big thing is to demystify the process for your kids."

Another way to get involved is to volunteer for an organization, like Kids Voting USA, that provides a similar service. In the late 1980s, the three founders visited Central America and saw voter turnout was high. They attributed it to the tradition of kids going to the polls with their parents, explains Kids Voting USA President and CEO John Barse. But because not every parent is politically active, the organization's affiliates come into classrooms across the country and have kids, well, vote. Depending on the location, students fill out paper ballots or vote online, getting a taste of democracy.

And once people are exposed to voting, it seems to be contagious. In areas where Kids Voting USA programs were in place in the schools, turnout increased when those students turned 18 and, surprisingly, among their parents as well.