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Politics

Lessons taught via voting booth

Some polling places will tally kids' picks on local and state races this fall.

By LETITIA STEIN
Published September 25, 2006


Come November, Tampa Bay's schoolchildren will have the chance to march into the polling place alongside their parents and vote for governor, County Commission and every race in between.

While the kids' votes will be tallied separately from their parents', the nonprofit group behind the effort, Kids Voting Tampa Bay, aims to grow today's youth into familiar adult faces at the polls.

Voting would become a family affair.

"Kids drag their parents to the polls," said Michelle Card, executive director of the project that debuted two years ago in Pasco County. "Kids end up voting because their parents are voting, or vice versa."

Just like the adults, children will have the opportunity to vote at select polling places in Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties. Hillsborough children will vote at school, as the county's elections office elected not to participate in the program.

Children will vote using a ballot with the official candidates. The paper ballots may feature photos of the gubernatorial candidates to help the younger children recognize their faces.

Kids will vote in their own booths adjacent to official voting machines.

Kids Voting Tampa Bay hopes to announce the results of the children's votes on Election Night.

"I think the kids will really enjoy participating in what they probably view as an adult activity," said Deborah Clark, Pinellas County's supervisor of elections. "While Mom and Dad are casting their ballots, the kids will be able to cast their own ballots."

In Pinellas, kids can vote at three early voting sites and 30 polling places. Volunteers from Kids Voting Tampa Bay will run the program. Elections officials didn't have to take on extra work, Clark said.

Kids Voting Tampa Bay is a regional affiliate of a national program active in about 30 states. In addition to voting booths, the organization provides schools with curriculum tailored to grade levels to educate students about voting. Its broad mission is instilling civic values in youth and the community. Its corporate sponsors include the St. Petersburg Times.

The Tampa Bay affiliate debuted two years ago in Pasco County, where about 15,000 students voted in the general election.

"So many times they read about something, but this was actually doing something," said Paula Lesko, a social studies teacher at Seven Springs Middle School in New Port Richey involved in the program in the first year. "They learned through the curriculum about the voting process and about analyzing candidates' positions."

Then the students actually got to cast ballots. Parents stopped Pasco Supervisor of Elections Kurt Browning to rave about their children's excitement.

Browning said the first-year challenge was assuring the officials at the various polling places that the children's program wouldn't pose difficulties.

"This is not meant to be problematic for you at your polling place on Election Day," Browning said. He noted that Kids Voting will be scaled back to select precincts this year, as opposed to all precincts as in 2004.

In Hillsborough, however, Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson said he couldn't get his questions answered to make logistics work for this election.

In particular, Johnson said he worried about making space for Kids Voting in the tight College Hill polling place at the expense of adult voting operations.

"How do I justify pulling out a voting machine to put in a Kids Voting machine?" Johnson said.

But Kids Voting organizers were never told about that problem, said Card, the organization's executive director. They did not ask for access to all voting places, but rather those with space.

She said Kids Voting had several meetings with Johnson's office to present the program - more than with any other county's elections office.

Ultimately, Kids Voting sent Johnson a letter regarding the need to set up a final meeting to answer all his questions, Card said. She never heard back.

"The Hillsborough supervisor never gave us an opportunity to address his concerns," she said.

Johnson and Card both hope to be able to work together to allow kids to vote in future elections.

For this year, Hillsborough students can participate in a modified program in public schools. Students will vote in the days before the Nov. 7 election.

"We want to give students as many opportunities as possible to learn about - and in this case actually experience hands-on - those aspects of citizenship that we all should be taking advantage of," said Dennis Holt, supervisor of secondary social studies education.

Although local schools plan to ramp up the Kids Voting curriculum after Tuesday's primary election, the learning experience is already beginning at Chocachatti Elementary School in Brooksville. Students are electing class officers. Third-grade teacher Rosemarie Maiorini wants them to understand the posters at intersections and political ads on TV.

"They're seeing the debates, they're hearing the news," she said, noting that she expects to see an informed class of voters. "They take it seriously."

Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or 813 226-3400.

[Last modified September 25, 2006, 06:48:55]


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