It's never too early to teach children about democracy.
It was 2004, Democrat John Kerry had just lost the U.S. presidential race to Republican George W. Bush, and a group of students at Columbus Alternative High School was taking the news hard.
“We were demoralized,” remembers Shannon Hardin, who’s now president of Columbus City Council but then was a junior at CAHS and had worked to elect Kerry.
Social studies teacher Sarah Thornburg, however, wouldn’t let them wallow in their disappointment. “What can you do to make this better?” she asked them. Within months, they found a way.
They created Youth at the Booth, a plan to recruit 17-year-olds as poll workers to lighten the load at polling places and give high school seniors real-life experience with elections. Hardin and his classmates researched similar programs, gathered signatures of support and convinced Joyce Beatty, then a state representative, to introduce legislation to set the project in motion.
Youth at the Booth still exists, helping older Ohio students understand the importance of being engaged in voting and elections. But younger children need to learn that lesson, too, and it begins at home.Get top reads, event recommendations, guides, parenting trends and more ideas for family fun. Subscribe to Columbus Parent’s weekly e-newsletter, The Bulletin.
Parents might wonder where to begin talking about civic responsibility and elections, particularly given the current political rancor pervading the country and social media. But it doesn’t have to be complicated—especially for younger children, who benefit more from understanding the right to vote and why it’s important than they do an in-depth discourse on presidential candidates’ mudslinging.
Aaron Sellers, public information officer for the Franklin County Board of Elections, remembers going to the polls with his parents when he was a child. “By doing that, your parents are showing you the importance of voting and having your voice heard,” he says.
This year is no different despite the pandemic, he says. Though there are new safety measures in place, Sellers still encourages parents to bring their children if they vote in person, or to share their absentee ballot if they’re voting at home. “It’s an excellent opportunity to educate our young people about voting,” says Sellers, and it may influence children to make voting a habit once they grow up.
Columbus City Schools social studies teacher Tocka Barrett says parents can teach their children about voting by talking about what’s going on in the world, helping them understand how local, state and federal elected officials can affect their lives, and by holding family elections to determine everything from what television show to watch to what to eat for dinner. “Make it into simple terms so they can understand it,” she advises.
Preschoolers can gain an overall understanding of elections when parents share picture books, such as “Duck for President” by Doreen Cronin or “Grace for President” by Kelly S. DiPucchio. Go to pbskids.org/peg/games/election-problem to find “The Election Problem,” a Peg + Cat read-aloud book that tells the story of Peg, a farmer and an election.
Maggie Sheehan, press secretary for Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, says LaRose likes to read “One Vote, Two Votes, I Vote, You Vote,” a Cat in the Hat book, to youngsters when he visits classrooms. The secretary of state’s website offers “Ohio Activity Book,” a children’s workbook with information about the state, crosswords and coloring pages.
Older kids can find age-appropriate information online about elections by typing “politicians” into the search engine at dkfindout.com, a site from educational publisher DK.
‘It Does Make a Difference’
Clintonville mom Megan Garbe, 43, says teaching her children about voting is a civic duty. meShe makes sure to have age-appropriate books about elections in the house and subscribes to a weekly news magazine for children, The Week Junior. She also prints out a map of the United States before each presidential election and has her children color each state red for Republican or blue for Democrat after returns are tallied. “We talk a lot about the Electoral College, and coloring in the states is a fun thing to do to understand that better,” she says.
Since she and her husband, Fred, will be voting via absentee ballot this year, she plans to talk to her children about the process to emphasize why voting is so important. “We’ve fought so hard for people to have that right, and I want them to know that it does make a difference who is in office,” she says. “You can’t complain about the system if you’re not doing anything to bring about change, and the easiest way to change things on a micro level is to move the people who are making the decisions.”
At Champion Middle School, Barrett plans to help her eighth-grade students understand the value of voting this November by having each one snap a photo of a parent voting—either in person or by absentee ballot. “I’m challenging the kids to get their parents to vote,” says Barrett. “Kids need to know how to exercise their rights.”
Parents also can find educational resources through organizations such as the League of Women Voters. “Our mission is to make democracy work, and the sooner we start the better,” says volunteer Mary Burkey, a retired educator who works with the league’s Metropolitan Columbus chapter.
In 2018 and 2019, the league partnered with the Girl Scouts of Ohio’s Heartland Council to offer VoterGirl, a half-day program for scouts in grades K-12. Because of the pandemic, it’s being replaced this year with a series of Facebook Live sessions that will cover democracy, citizenship and women’s suffrage. “We’ll talk about how you make your voices heard, why it’s important to vote, what is civil discourse and how you can work for the common good,” Burkey says. Anyone can participate in the 45-minute sessions by following the Girl Scouts of Ohio’s Heartland Council on Facebook.
Another resource, the nonpartisan voter education program Kids Voting Ohio, is being rebuilt and won’t be operational until 2021, says organizer Michael Collins, president of MCG Strategies, a consulting firm focused on education.
“COVID put a pretty big damper on this,” he says. “But we’re taking it on and plan to rekindle it.”