Students at the Polls

The San Diego Union Tribune

Rebecca Wood and Michael Schudson
(Rebecca Wood is a student at UCSD. Michael Schudson teaches at UCSD and
is the author of The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life.)

     As the Florida election debacle played itself out and the Supreme
Court finally settled the presidency by a one-vote margin, the nation
grew more cynical about our electoral system. It became painfully
obvious that our antiquated voting system is in need of massive
overhaul. But, at this time of national embarrassment, nearly 600 San
Diego County high school seniors, participating in a Registrar of
Voters-sponsored effort made possible by a l996 state law, served as
official poll workers and received a first-hand lesson in civics.
     Ironically, despite the Florida mess, the experience actually
reaffirmed students' faith in the system. "I was honored to do this
and I felt like I was helping our country in some small way," said a
senior from Julian High School who was one of over 200 who returned
questionnaires to the Registrar.
     Most students saw the opportunity to work at the polls as a positive
and interesting experience. The students worked the same hours and
performed the same tasks as other poll workers and they or their high
school student organizations were paid $60 for their l5-hour days,
the same as adult clerks at the polls. But the long hard day did not
discourage them, as 93% said that they would recommend participating
in the Student Poll Worker Program to other students. "It was a new
experience, where I got to participate in something that was so
important to our country," a student from Julian High School wrote.
      Students were surprised at the variety of people who showed up to
vote on Election Day. A student from El Capitan High said what she
liked best about the experience was "seeing a 91 year old man who
couldn't walk or speak come in to vote because he cared."
     Most of the seniors felt like they were doing something important. "I
was a part of history. Now I know how the election process works and
I have a deeper respect for the American government," said a student
from Covenant Christian High School.
     Although most students liked the experience, lots of respondents
complained that the day was too long and should be broken into
shifts. A fifteen-hour day sitting in a cold garage with only two
l5-minute breaks and 45 minutes for lunch was too much. Some students
said what they liked least was the boring "dead time," when nobody
came in to vote.
    Florida wasn't the only place having mechanical voting problems. One
student complained that four of the voting devices
kept breaking and were useless because of it and another student said that
the voting devices were not stable, with the stylus breaking off of the
chain. A few students said that some people had difficulty locating their
precincts, or had to be turned away when they went to the wrong one.
     Perhaps witnessing this exercise in democracy showed our systems
shortcomings, but it also worked to instill an appreciation for the
process that elects the president. In fact 98% of the survey
respondents said that the experience made them more likely to vote in
future elections.
     Most students realized, especially in the days following November 7,
what a historic event this Election Day was. The 2000 presidential
election has taught us all the importance of each vote. And although
the Supreme Court was the ultimate arbiter this time, everyone knows
the difference between Bush and Gore came down to just a couple
hundred votes in Florida. Memory of the closeness of the election may
help reduce voter apathy in the future.
     Students gained a sense of taking part in a distinctly American
experience. Working the polls was important in inculcating a sense of
citizenship as the students experienced one of the basic rights we
are guaranteed. And perhaps because most of the participating
students were seniors, l7 years old and close to – but not quite at
-- voting age, they were especially sensitive to how significant that
right is. In fact, many acknowledged that voting is a "privilege."
"It taught me a lot about the democratic process and I value it very
much," said a student from Rancho Bernardo High.
     The students’ observations were surprisingly free of cynicism. During
the long count in Florida, the media frequently reported people
complaining about our electoral system, its complexity, the variety
of states’ election rules, the margin of error of the various
voting devices, and voter ignorance. “We're supposed to be showing other
countries how to run elections and we can't even run our own!” was a
common complaint. Florida was the butt of jokes for weeks. But students
who participated as poll workers generally had few complaints about our
imperfect system.
     If the students learned a civics lesson, society at large can, too.
More than half a century ago, America’s most celebrated philosopher
of education, John Dewey, wrote that in his vision of Utopia, there
would be no schools. Dewey believed that in the long run society
needed not schools but “a faith in the capacity of the environment to
support worthwhile activities.”  The Registrar of Voters found a way
last November to enhance the environment for worthwhile activities.
What students learned from working the polls Election Day will likely
linger in their minds longer than any classroom rhetoric on the
importance of voting.

 
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