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Fulfilling their civic duty

More than 4,200 high school students head to L.A. County polls -- not to vote, but to work as volunteers.

November 05, 2008|Carla Rivera | Rivera is a Times staff writer.

Amy Cohen was a bit nervous after the doors opened Tuesday at the Studio City church where she was volunteering for the first time as a poll worker. She is 18, a first-time voter, and the long line of people waiting to exercise their right to vote included her mother and brother. Plus, her father was working at the poll too.

"I was afraid I was going to do something wrong and get into trouble, but I'm doing good so far," Cohen said during a brief respite from greeting people and checking off names in the thick book of registered voters.

In Tuesday's historic election in which the votes of young people were expected to be pivotal, thousands of Los Angeles County high school students mostly tasted their first civic duty as poll workers -- not as voters.

In 2000, 617 students participated in the student volunteer program. This year more than 4,200 worked Los Angeles County polls, with more than 3,100 others helping to inspect ballots after the polls closed. Students can earn extra credit and are paid $80 for their labor (plus an extra $20 if they attended a training session).

The county's volunteer program began in 1998, and the 2000 election was the first presidential contest in which high school students could participate. To volunteer, students must be 16, a U.S. citizen, have at least a 2.5 grade point average and must have permission from parents and their school.

The students got a first-hand look at democracy in action and gained experience that might make an impression on a college application. But they have also become an essential part of the county's 25,000-strong election day army of workers.

"The good thing about students is they're in a learning mode," said Marcia Ventura, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County registrar-recorder, adding that they are more likely to show up, are more tech savvy and many are bilingual. "For veteran poll workers they bring an enthusiasm to the process, and for elderly workers they can help set up tables and equipment. Hopefully, they come out with a better understanding of the election process."

Students from 216 schools, both public and private, participated in Tuesday's election, officials said. Thirteen seniors from Pacific Hills School, a private campus in West Hollywood, volunteered this year.

Alex Osborne, 17, a Pacific Hills senior, wanted to see what went on behind the scenes of an election.

"I thought it was like writing your name on a paper and putting it in a box," said Osborne, who at 6-foot-7 plays power forward on the school's basketball team.

Osborne found that the process can be challenging. Part of the Baldwin Hills polling place that served his precinct was flooded by overnight rains, and voting for hundreds of people who had been standing in line was delayed for about 20 minutes while he and other workers set up equipment in a different room.

But once he began, he became proficient at greeting voters and checking names. He said his parents were surprised when he told them he wanted to volunteer at the polls.

"I feel like it's a special election to be working in because of its nature," Osborne said. "I'm sorry I can't vote today, but my time will come."

On the other side of town, Cohen, also a Pacific Hills senior, was surprised at the number of people who showed up. Her mother, Stephanie, had to wait for 45 minutes, but it was a special feeling checking her name off the list, as well as that of her brother, Geoffrey, 22.

Politics have always been a family staple, with political discussions around the dinner table and intense interest in election results, said Cohen, whose grandmother was a delegate at Democratic conventions.

"It's been amazing for me to see so many different kinds of people with so many different political views. It's fascinating, and I think it will make me a much more aware person," said Cohen, who by midday had not yet had time to cast her own first vote.

If Cohen had any questions, she had to look only at the end of the table to her proud father, who was participating for the third time as a poll worker.

"We found out about two weeks ago that we would be working in the same polling place," said Dennis Cohen. "It's wonderful and I'm thrilled."

In the garage of a Hollywood Hills residence that had been turned into a polling place, Charlie and Nick Morrison spent the day collecting ballots, handing out stickers and helping to answer questions for the steady stream of voters passing through.

They may have turned a few heads: The 17-year-old Pacific Hills seniors are twins. Charlie is president of the school's student body and Nick is vice president. Their first election experience had been running smoothly, Nick said.

"There had been some people who didn't understand the propositions and wanted to know if they should vote yes or no," Nick said. The poll workers, of course, could not offer their opinions.

Voter Katie Apice asked Nick to snap a picture of her holding her 6-month-old daughter, Riley, who was breaking an election law by wearing a tiny, handmade "Obama '08" T-shirt. Apice was impressed at the brothers' sense of purpose.

"I thought they were college kids," Apice said. "I remember not having as much interest in politics at that age. But they're 17 and not able to vote but are helping. That's cool."


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