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Sandy Banks

Let the Legacy of Voting Begin in Childhood

November 07, 2000|Sandy Banks

By all accounts, voter turnout is expected to be high across the country today. Both major political parties spent record amounts during the campaign to register voters and draw them to the polls. Party leaders say grass-roots activity has been more vigorous this year than during any campaign in the last 20.

But it will take more than one tight campaign to reverse years of election-day apathy. And the most important steps on the road to higher voter turnout might be those our children make, as they head with us to our polling places today.

"Voting is something we learn to do, and it's a habit best adopted young," says Patricia McGinnis, president of the Council for Excellence in Government in Washington, D.C. "We can't assume that young people will grow into voters unless we take the time to show them how."

McGinnis is director of the national "Take Your Kids to Vote" campaign, sponsored by a nonpartisan coalition of civic groups and businesses alarmed by declining voting levels, particularly among young people.

The first year the U.S. Census kept track, in 1964, 69% of American adults voted. The rate has declined in almost every presidential election since. By 1996, only about half the country's eligible voters went to the polls. Among those 18 to 24 that year, only a third cast ballots.

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"It's not that we don't want to vote," says USC senior Brianne Fitzgerald, who helped coordinate a campus rally last week that drew hundreds of students from area colleges to talk about election issues. "You know it's important, but you've got midterms, a paper due, . . . you just don't get around to it. You don't think of it as a priority . . . and then the day is over and your chance is gone."

Surveys show that young people are twice as likely to make voting a priority if they grew up in a home where their parents voted regularly.

But it's not enough, McGinnis says, to let our children know we vote. We need to let them see us vote, again and again, election after election, to establish voting as a ritual central to our identity as citizens.

"The simple example that parents set can be extremely powerful over time. . . . Make it a family tradition, a routine part of life," like going to church on Sunday, having coffee with breakfast, brushing your teeth before bed.

Like a lot of her college classmates, Brianne grew up in a household where her parents voted, but "didn't make it a big deal. They never really talked about it, I didn't actually see them vote."

Politics was hardly on her radar screen, "until I realized that who gets elected affects our community in a big way. There are plenty of us who are socially conscious, but we've got to get into the habit of voting. We've got to educate ourselves."

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Part of that education lies in making kids feel as familiar with casting a ballot as getting a haircut or tying a shoe.

"There's a real value in kids growing up knowing what the drill is--you sign in, pull the lever, turn in your card . . . whatever. That sort of familiarity gives you a comfort level that makes it seem not so intimidating."

Comfort level. Resurrecting memories from my own childhood, I know exactly what she means. Our election day ritual was as unchanging as new dresses at Easter, trick-or-treating on Halloween.

Mom would bundle us up and hustle us down to the local church that served as our polling place. The church basement was noisy and smelled like hot coffee. There were always lines and crowds inside--men clad in work clothes and caps, rushing in from cars left idling in the cold; young mothers herding crowds of kids, bouncing babies on their shoulders while they waited in line; old ladies leaning on their walkers, gossiping to pass the time.

It was as much social event as civic duty, less an intellectual exercise than an emotional one. And it imprinted on my young mind the notion that something necessary, noble even, took place when my mother slipped behind that curtain to cast her ballot.

"We hear stories like that all the time," says Kelly Diffily, project director of "Take Your Kids to Vote." "People in their 50s and 60s talking about when they were 6 years old or 7 years old, heading off with their parents to vote. . . . Such a simple thing, you think. But the memories seem to last a long, long time."

That's why--no matter how drab the candidates, how meaningless the agenda--I can't not vote on election day . . . at least not without feeling guilty. A family legacy is on the line.

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Sandy Banks' column is published on Sundays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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