The voters of tomorrow

Students learn about their democracy and
political process through mock election
Sunday, October 31, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:31 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Aaron Green was sure he had picked the best candidate for the job.

So when John Kerry was announced Saturday as the winner of the mock election at the J.W. Blind Boone Community Center, Aaron, 6, couldn’t hold back his emotion.

“I wanted Bush to win,” he said through teary eyes. “One reason I wanted Bush to win is so our country could be better.”

Aaron and 16 other children, ages 6 to 15, got an early introduction to voting when they cast ballots for Bush, Kerry or Independent candidate Ralph Nader at the Fun City Youth Academy’s first mock election. The academy, which started in 1970, is a program that helps children from lower-income families retain what they learn in school.

In a room decked out with red, white and blue streamers and balloons, the future voters learned about registering to vote, listening to candidates’ positions on the issues and making informed choices. In the end, 12 children voted for Kerry, four for Bush and one for Nader.

Carla Wright, 11, listened patiently as three adult volunteers representing the candidates presented their positions on the economy, health care and war. But Carla, a sixth-grader at Lane Elementary School, had already made her choice.

“My teacher talked about how much John Kerry does and how much Bush does,” she said. “She talked about what they did and how their lives were when they grew up, and I thought Kerry was more interesting.”

Angela McHenry, a fourth-grader at Lee Elementary, agreed.

“I think he’s honest and he’s kind,” said Angela. “Well, the other thing — anybody would be better than Bush.”

Given the buzz surrounding the real presidential election, Barbara Walker, principal for the academy’s Saturday program, organized the mock version as an introduction to civic duty.

“This is mainly a way of making the children aware of the importance of voting,” said Walker, who has been with Fun City for four years.

The voting and ballot counting only took 30 minutes, but the event was preceded by three sessions filled with related activities.

Judy Baker, the Democratic candidate for 25th District state representative, visited the program on Oct. 2 to discuss the importance of voting and test the children’s and teens’ knowledge about candidates on this year’s ballot.

“You can tell she worked with children before,” Walker said. “She got right down to their level.”

In the following weeks, Walker introduced the children to political debates, issue stances and the process of registering to vote. As a homework assignment, Walker asked the students to listen to real political debates.

Through it all, Walker has tried to emphasize the importance of making an independent choice when voting. Although attendance has fluctuated, Walker thinks the children have been getting the message.

“They’ve been really receptive,” she said. “They’ve asked questions, and I was surprised to hear at the last session when I asked if anybody had listened to debates that a few had.”

Steve Meyerhardt was the stand-in for Nader in the pre-election stump speeches. A volunteer with the Alternatives to Violence Program, Meyerhardt thinks introducing children to voting at a young age helps bring them into the broader social system.

“I think that it’s important to make them feel included in the system,” he said. “My feeling is that as the children get older, they feel excluded.”

Walker doesn’t merely want the participants to become responsible voters. She also wants them to learn about the current election “in hopes that they’ll take these messages back to their parents and get them out on Election Day.”

But some of the new voters are aiming even higher than that. Angela, 10, is considering her own future in politics.

“One day I might run for vice president,” she said.

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