November 5, 1996
On election day story about one way to cope with voter apathy. It's called the family solution. Rod Minott of KCTS-Seattle reports.
ROD MINOTT: Today at this polling place in Seattle, Partha Mukhopadhyahs's long habit of not voting finally came to an end. An immigrant from India, Mukhopadhyah had skipped casting ballots in every presidential election since becoming a U.S. citizen in 1987.
PARTHA MUKHOPADHYAH: I think we had some hesitation we would make a mistake, choose the wrong candidate by not knowing enough about them.
MR. MINOTT: But now, the 48-year-old Boeing manager credits his two sons, including twelve-year-old Ram, for changing his mind about the importance of voting.
RAM MUKHOPADHYAH, 8th Grader: And Dole voted against that in the Senate.
PARTHA MUKHOPADHYAH: Is that right?
RAM MUKHOPADHYAH: Yeah.
PARTHA MUKHOPADHYAH: They encourage us, you know, that we must vote. Certainly that keeps us perked up. Otherwise, the interest may just die down along the way.
TEACHER: Ram, what do you think if people don't vote?
RAM MUKHOPADHYAH: Well, maybe they don't have enough interest in voting and they don't really care who wins.
MR. MINOTT: Ram, an 8th grader, says his interest in seeing his parents vote came from a special civics program started this year in Seattle's schools. The project, known as Kids Voting USA, encourages children to accompany their parents to polling booths on election day, where they vote on their own mock ballot. The idea is to get children enthused about voting early on so that they'll keep going to the polls for real once they turn 18. Today, Ram joined 2 million other schoolchildren across the country in voting. The 8th grader had no doubts about his choice for President.
RAM MUKHOPADHYAH: Bill Clinton.
MR. MINOTT: Why?
RAM MUKHOPADHYAH: Because I like him, and Bob Dole's too old, and he's a little bit bland and not fun enough, and Bill Clinton is like fun, and he's cool.
MR. MINOTT: Kids voting was set up in 1988 by a group of nonpartisan civic activists from Arizona. The project was modeled on a program in Costa Rica, where voter turnout typically reaches 90 percent.
MARILYN EVANS, President, "Kids Voting USA": (addressing group of children) I suspect that you're thirteen and fourteen years old. In only about five years, you're going to be voters.
MR. MINOTT: Marilyn Evans, president of Kids Voting USA, says that turnout in Costa Rica is so large because education about voting starts in kindergarten. In the U.S., by contrast, only 55 percent voted in the last presidential election. And Evans thinks that's going to get worse.
MARILYN EVANS: Political scientists are telling us to expect less adults to vote every year. We will be lucky in this year's presidential election if 50 percent of eligible voters go to the polls.
MR. MINOTT: Among the young, ages eighteen to twenty-four, the numbers are even worse. Turnout in presidential races dips to 42 percent. Evans and others cite several reasons for the low number of voters.
MARILYN EVANS: The rage is from saggy satisfaction--people are so happy with what's going on that they feel like there doesn't need to be change and, therefore, they don't need to be involved, to angry alienation--and that is people thinking they are powerless, that their involvement will not matter.
MR. MINOTT: The Kids Voting project is now taught in 40 states, involving six thousand schools and five million students--grades kindergarten through high school. According to a recent study, the Kids Voters program has increased adult participation by an average of 3 percent, but in Enumclaw, a small town 50 miles southeast of Seattle, that rise was 9 percent. For three years, that district of 5,000 students has been using games and exercises centered around voting. Judy Martinson is the deputy school superintendent.
JUDY MARTINSON, Enumclaw School District: We try to make children aware through a lot of the simulations how very much difference one vote can make, how very much difference it can make if you make a casual vote as opposed to a carefully thought-through vote, because if you choose this versus that, you may have some very different results that you may like and want to live with. So we try to make sure that they understand that they can make a difference as an individual.
TEACHER: Today, we're going to go ahead and introduce voting, the different parts of voting, and how we actually vote.
MR. MINOTT: For these Enumclaw third-graders a recent lesson included casting votes on a sample ballot.
MALE STUDENT: These sample ballots: School will be year-round. Recess will be sit-ups and push-ups.
MR. MINOTT: Other children learned how to fill out voter registration cards. Ashley Abramson explained why she felt it was important to register and vote.
ASHLEY ABRAMSON, 3rd Grader: Because, um, when you don't vote, people make your decision, and you don't like that. They tell you--they tell you what to do.
SHERRIE HARDERSEN, Teacher: (speaking to class) Everyone that's at the table and already has their card, would you please put your name on the first line.
MR. MINOTT: Teacher Sherrie Harderson says the registration exercise also benefits many parents.
SHERRIE HARDERSEN: We have found that many of our registration cards--when we send ‘em out for parents to fill out and give us precinct numbers, we find parents don't know what precinct they can vote in. But by having to fill out this form for their kids at school, they have to go and research the information for themselves. And a lot of times by doing so, they register to vote too.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I believe that the federal government should give people the tools and try to establish the conditions in which they can make the most of their own lives.
MR. MINOTT: The assignment for 5th graders like Lisa Binetti included watching the presidential debates at home with family.
SEN. BOB DOLE: And it seems to me that there's a problem there, Mr. President. And I will address you as Mr. President. You didn't do that with President Bush in 1992.
CHILD: He's so mean. Do these guys like hate each other?
MR. BINETTI: They don't hate each other. They have just different opinions on how to run a business--the government.
MR. MINOTT: Lisa said she was leaning toward supporting Bob Dole. Her mother, Marianne, said she was embarrassed to admit that she never thought about voting when she was Lisa's age and waited until her late 20's before stepping inside a polling booth.
MARIANNE BINETTI, Lisa's Mother: Probably because of kids voting, these kids at a lot much earlier age then take advantage of, you know, their right to vote, whereas, we just--we weren't aware of it, we weren't into it, we weren't interested, and now these kids are going to be interested a lot earlier, and, you know, when they turn 18, they're going to vote, and we didn't.
MR. MINOTT: While political scientist Richard Young likes the Kids Voting program, he cautions it's not the entire answer.
RICHARD YOUNG, Political Scientist: The decline in voting over the last thirty years and even more importantly, the decline in public trust in government, cannot be resolved by simply, uh, bussing children off to polling booths, or going through mock elections. There are some fundamental political, sociological, cultural problems with our political system today, and this program is a good program. I don't really want to criticize it, but it is not the answer to problems of public apathy and public ignorance.
MR. MINOTT: Marilyn Evans acknowledge that Kids Voting won't solve all the problems, but she is excited by the fact that it seems to have brought political habits of economic groups together. She cites a recent study by a Stanford University professor which found low-income families are benefitting.
MARILYN EVANS: And he said to us we expect kids from high socioeconomic families to be interested in politics and be knowledgeable about races going on in their communities and issues and so on; we don't expect that from kids from low socioeconomic families. He says Kids Voting has closed the gap to zero; that the kids from high socioeconomic families and low are just as interested in politics, just as knowledgeable.
MR. MINOTT: Kids Voting advocates plan to spread their program to all 50 states eventually. For now, they say the story of 12-year-old Ram Mukhopadhyah and his family is the best example of what they hope will be repeated across the country as more parents follow their children to the polling booth.