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County Teenagers Pitch In at the Polls

About 100 high school seniors work as election clerks as part of a program to inspire and teach them about the voting process.

November 06, 2002|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

Whitney Kellerhouse smiled cheerfully, reshuffled a pile of papers and scanned the silent room for someone, anyone, in need of assistance.

No luck.

Scattered around the cafeteria of Ventura's Will Rogers Elementary School, voters quietly punched their ballots and went on their way.

"I took a training class last week," said Whitney, 17. "But I hope we don't have to deal with hanging chads."

Whitney and 17-year-old Erica Bjorndahl, both seniors at Ventura High School, spent the day as election clerks as part of a countywide effort to involve high school students in the voting process. They were paid a small stipend and were assigned to help voters decipher ballots, to look up addresses for precinct workers and to dispense information.

"We hope it gets them inspired and into voting early," said Candace Pickel, who coordinates the program for the Ventura County Elections Division. "They must have 2.5 grade point averages and be nominated by a teacher. They tend to be good students, young and strong and on their toes."

About 100 seniors were chosen to work in about 100 polling places. They were paid up to $65 for the day, and some received class credit.

Whitney, who participates in student government, said she wanted to see democracy -- despite its occasional sluggishness -- in action.

"There are some kids who care less," she said. "But many read the paper even more than adults."

Contentious development issues such as Ventura's Measure A, which called for 1,390 new homes to be built in the hills, also energized students.

"Measure A is huge at the high school," Whitney said. "The kids seem to split down the middle. Many take whatever position their parents take."

At Christa McAuliffe Elementary School in Oxnard, 17-year-old Sarah Gomez sorted ballots in the library. She said students care deeply about politics.

"People in my government class are always asking why we are going to war, why can't we use the money for people here instead of wasting it on war," said Sarah, a senior at Rio Mesa High School in Oxnard.

She was surprised at how many steps were involved in casting a vote.

"I have heard some kids say their votes don't count, but then look at what happened in the last election when people didn't vote," she said.

Selma Pearlmutter, an elections inspector for five years, said this was the first time she has worked with high school students at the polls.

"They are getting hands-on experience," she said, looking over at 17-year-old Zac Haines, a Rio Mesa senior. "At the end of the day, I want him to see what's at stake. I want him to see how the process will affect him, so when it's his time to vote, he'll understand."

While Zac acknowledged that working at the polls was an enlightening experience, he had more immediate motivations. "My teacher will give me 50 extra credit points and I get paid," he said.

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