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Raising Voters

When my youngest daughter turned eighteen last month, my mother asked me if I was going to “drag her to the polls” in November. She remembers when I turned eighteen a long time ago and voting was not exactly top of mind. Back then, the legal drinking age was also eighteen, and I will say this about that: Although I do remember registering to vote not too long after my birthday, I was not thinking about heading to the polls with my friends to celebrate.

These days, however, voting is one of the few new rights that comes with turning eighteen. And in Virginia, we have many, many opportunities to exercise that right. Seriously, if it feels like someone is campaigning for something constantly in Virgina, that’s because there is an election every single year.

In my house, thankfully, no one has to be dragged to the polls like Grandma implied. Everyone votes, and all of my daughters have volunteered for a campaign at some point – sometimes for service hours, sometimes for a grade in a class, and sometimes because they actually wanted to help get someone elected. Across the country, though, things are very different: 18- to 29-year-olds have the lowest voter participation rate of all age groups. Knowing this makes me simultaneously proud of my kids and just plain sad for the future of our country.

Young people should want to vote.

Something is happening that is turning off a lot of people – young and old – to anything related to politics. Even something as important as the vote. In this hyper-polarized environment, where everything can be politicized (yes, even the environment), it’s hard work to have civil and respectful discussions about government, politics, and policy. It’s difficult to talk about these things with our family members – let alone with neighbors or co-workers – so many of us don’t talk at all.

Ten years ago, when hearing about politics didn’t cause eyes to glaze over or heads to explode, things were a little different. In the spring of 2008, my oldest daughter, who was in fifth grade at the time, came home and told me about the results of a mock election. The race was wide open on both sides, and her public school classroom was a political strategist’s dream sample – students were male, female, black, white, Middle Eastern, Eastern European, and Latino. When asked to cast a vote in a general election for president, who did they choose to serve as the next leader of the free world?

The winner by a landslide – in this particular fifth grade classroom anyway – was Mike Huckabee.

The reason why Mike Huckabee won this mock election was just as baffling to me as the fact that he won at all. When asked why they voted the way they did, my daughter said the overwhelming response from her classmates was, “He has a funny name!”

Well shoot, I remember thinking, Barack Obama has two funny names. And Hillary Clinton is a girl. And John McCain reminds me of my pap-pap so much that I can easily imagine him asking his granddaughter to pull his finger for – well, you know what for.

But I digress. The little-known former governor of Arkansas and Southern preacher Mike Huckabee was the winner of this mock election.

Out of all the students, only four voted for someone besides Huckabee, presumably for reasons other than a silly sounding last name. John McCain got one vote, Hillary Clinton got two, and Barack Obama had one fifth-grade supporter among the ranks. These four student voters, one of whom was my daughter, may have been influenced the way I was as a child. After listening to dinner table debate and porch swing partisan talk, I went to school on mock Election Day, campaigned hard through recess, then voted for whomever my parents said I should.

I never heard another word about the mock election in my oldest daughter’s classroom that year, and there were other elections for my younger girls in the elementary school years that followed. Interestingly, my kids don’t remember mock elections happening in middle school. And I don’t know if elementary schools today still have them. I hope so.

I also hope families can find safe ways to talk with kids at home about politics, policy, the future of our nation, and candidates who are running for elected office. If we can’t talk to our children about who we’re voting for – and why – the abyss of angry partisanship on social media is waiting to suck them in.

Over dinner tonight, try talking to your school-age kids about who you’re voting for on Election Day and what factors went into your decision. Ask them who they would vote for in a mock election. And another topic of discussion: Would you be happy or horrified to hear if one of your kids had been thinking about running for office one day? After all, we are raising our country’s next generation of leaders!

Finally, on Election Day, try to take your kids to the polls with you and let them see you vote. From an early age, show your kids that your family values voting.

Today, I’m the proud parent of three voters, but I’ll never forget the first time I took my oldest daughter to vote with me. When we were done and I slid my ballot into the machine by the door, she asked, “Do we win something?” The answer came right to me: “Of course! We win democracy!”

Karen Schwartzkopf has her dream job as managing editor of RFM. Wife, mother, arts and sports lover, she lives and works in the West End with her family, including husband Scott, who not coincidentally is RFM’s creative director. You can read Karen’s take on parenting her three daughters – Sam, Robin, and Lindsey, also known as the women-children – in the Editor’s Voice.
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