Perhaps it was my fault, but I was not aware that my kids’ elementary school was going to vote for the presidential candidates a couple of weeks ago. I’m glad they did. I still remember voting in the 1980 election in elementary school, so it clearly made an impression. It was a way for me to connect to something that was obviously of great importance to the adults around me. And that made the mock vote important to me. I think that’s true for my older daughter too.
I’m pretty sure I knew my vote as an eight-year-old didn’t count in the same way my parents’ did. But that key information didn’t make it into my eight-year-old daughter’s brain before she voted. When she asked the other day, after she and her schoolmates cast their vote and the totals were tallied, what happens to them I knew she’d be disappointed. Nothing happens. They don’t count. She wasn’t happy about that, but she got over it. Still, I felt bad that her mom and I had to tell her that she played no role in electing the next president.
Yet, we had something else to offer her. She could join us when we cast our votes, as she does every election day. I also fondly recall entering the voting booth with my parents. Back in the day we used those delightfully noisy, mechanical voting machines. The “booth” was an actual booth. With the pull of a lever, the curtain automatically closed behind us. It was just me and my mom or dad in front of, what seemed to me, a huge board of options and levers. At the direction of my parent, I got to pull them, at least the ones I could reach. Then, when we were done and we pulled the lever to execute our choices, the machine banged and whirred and the curtain opened. I could hear democracy at work. Fantastic!
It’s not like that anymore. When I take my kids to vote, we get a paper ballot with circles to fill in. The ballot gets read by optical scan, which is probably more accurate than the levered machines of yore. (One hopes.) The exercise is conducted in a flimsy, aluminum “booth” with no curtain. It feels cheap, and something important to me has been lost. Several years ago I let my older daughter fill in a bubble or two at my direction. Since there was no curtain, this was done, more or less, in plain sight. An election official saw what we were doing and told me that it was against the rules. I understand why that might be true. It’s my vote and I should cast it. But I don’t like not letting my daughter participate.
When I told my daughter she couldn’t help fill in the ballot, she was crushed. I was crushed for her. I had just shut the door on the closest thing she could get to my childhood experience in the machine of levers. I felt the loss of access to something I had as a child, a kinesthetic way to transfer the value and joy of voting. Sometimes learning is more than just information. Sometimes we need to literally do something. So, in terms of the vote-casting process I give her the only activity I have left to give. She gets to feed the ballot into the optical scanner, and she loves it.
It’s obvious to us adults that kids’ votes at school for the U.S. president don’t count, except pedagogically. It’s obvious to us that our primary school aged child isn’t the one voting when they join us in the booth, even if they pull a lever or fill a circle or two as directed. But none of this is obvious to kids. Of course we should explain it and explain that someday they will get to vote in a way that counts. In the meantime, from my experience, it seems kids love to, yearn to, participate in elections, in democracy. They love to feel like they’re connected to their country, to their government, and to the process that decides who runs it. To the extent we can fulfill that desire, I think we should.
When I vote today, my kids will be with me. I encourage you to vote too and to bring your kids. If you can’t or don’t have any, notice those brought by others at the polling place when you go. Smile at them. Say hi. Ask them if they’re going to vote. Make it look important and fun. If not for yourself, at least do it for the kids. In more ways than one, they may need your vote more than you do.
[Cross-posted at The Incidental Economist]