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Incorporated in Voter Instructions : Students' Suggestions Simplify Polling Place

November 30, 1986|JESSE KATZ | Times Staff Writer

If the voting instructions posted at polling places in Los Angeles County seemed easier to understand this year, the credit should go to a group of children too young to vote.

Eighth-graders at Suzanne Middle School in Walnut were baffled by some of the complicated wording they found in the county's voter instructions during a mock election last year.

As part of an assignment in Alan Haskvitz's social studies class, the 13-year-olds simplified the grammar and vocabulary and invited the registrar-recorder to their classroom. To the amazement of nearly all the students, their suggestions were incorporated into the county's election material.

Complicated Instructions

"The instructions were so complicated that by the time you got to the end of the sentence, you forgot what the first part said," said Haskvitz, who has taught for two years in the rapidly growing city of Walnut, about 30 miles east of downtown Los Angeles in the San Gabriel Valley.

"I told them to form a committee and rewrite the stuff," he said. "I tried to make it real for them."

Assistant Registrar-Recorder Ralph Heikkila, who coordinated the revision, said that the regulations had been complicated by legal requirements and quotes taken directly out of the election codes.

"Some of these instructions had been around for many, many years," said Heikkila, adding that several outdated references to paper ballots were removed entirely. "Sometimes it takes an outsider to show us that (the instructions) don't read so well."

Although many of the revisions are not dramatic departures from the original text, he said, they do make the instructions more concise.

Last year, for example, voters were warned that no person may "place any mark upon his ballot for identification." This year, however, voters were told simply that no person may "mark a ballot for identification."

In previous years, voters were instructed that "if a voter spoils his ballot, he may receive an additional ballot." Now, "if you make a mistake on your ballot, you may receive a new ballot."

Hard to Understand

"They didn't use very good English and some of the things were hard for a person to understand," said Gary San Angel, who, along with the other students in Haskvitz's class, has since graduated and gone on to high school. "We just decided, 'Why don't regular teen-agers fix it up and make it sound better?' "

To do that, the 30 students did a reading-level analysis of the material by measuring sentence length and the number of syllables in each word.

The instructions, which they said had been written at a university reading level, were revised to a sixth- or seventh-grade level.

At their request, Heikkila visited the students in December, and shortly thereafter, they received a letter from county Registrar-Recorder Charles Weissburd telling them that their suggestions would be used.

"Young people need to become more involved in their community and government, and what better way to get started in these endeavors than through creative assignments such as the one your class just completed," Weissburd said in the letter.

". . .I would like to thank you and your students for making the electoral process simpler for the people of Los Angeles County."

'Really Neat Citizens'

"The kids at this age want to do something they can see," Haskvitz said. "They're ready to explore the world. They're becoming really neat citizens."

In the June primary election and again this month, the new voter regulations were posted in 6,403 polling places in Los Angeles County, which, with 3.5 million registered voters, is the largest election jurisdiction in the country.

"Voting is a pretty major thing," said Roger Triffo, another of the students who participated in the revision. "I was very surprised that our ideas could actually have a result. It made us feel that we were important."

"Not only do these kids feel good about themselves," Haskvitz said, "but they're learning that just because a person is taller than them or older than them, it doesn't mean they can't ask a question,"

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