If they vote early, they'll vote often

Alexis Simmons, a 12th-grader at Duluth Central High School, will cast her first official ballot in Tuesday's election, but the 18-year-old is no stranger to voting.

Alexis Simmons, a 12th-grader at Duluth Central High School, will cast her first official ballot in Tuesday's election, but the 18-year-old is no stranger to voting.

Simmons has been tagging along to the polls with her parents since she was a kindergartener at Birchwood Elementary, unofficially voting for the prettiest candidate or the one with the coolest name.

Tuesday's election won't be much different for Simmons, only this time she'll slide her ballot into the real box -- and she plans to be a bit more thoughtful about her vote.

Simmons is a product of Kids Voting Minnesota, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that educates kids about politics and encourages them to accompany their parents to the polls. There, they can vote in an area labeled "Kids Voting." All polling locations in Duluth have designated areas for kids to vote.

The votes aren't included in official election results, but the practice makes kids much more likely to vote when it counts, according to Lars Sandstrom, executive director of Kids Voting Minnesota.


"They are developing a habit, so it becomes automatic when they turn 18," Sandstrom said.

Simmons was in kindergarten when the organization came to Duluth in 1994, making her class the first with an opportunity to vote in every election since the organization grew local roots.

Voting in Tuesday's election isn't even a question for Simmons.

"I kind of look at it as my civic duty," Simmons said. "I believe it's our generation that will be in control of government in a few years. The more we know, the better our government will be."

Simmons' attitude is rare among her peers. Sandstrom said 18- to 24-year-olds have the lowest voter turnout at the polls, largely because they don't know how to vote.

"When you're 18 you don't want to look foolish, so you don't go," Sandstrom said. "But if you've been doing it since you were a kid, you don't have any problems."

Participants in Kids Voting are 15 percent more likely to vote than the rest of their peers -- largely for that reason, Sandstrom said.

About 55 percent, or 6,000, Duluth children voted through Kids Voting in 2004. Across the state, 67,000 kids voted.


The organization does more than just push kids to hit the polls, Sandstrom said. It also provides teachers with teaching materials to incorporate lessons on civic involvement into their curriculums.

East High School teacher Cheryl Lien has been preparing her students for the November election for the past few weeks.

Students spent Tuesday and Wednesday making posters encouraging students to vote and reviewing voter guides to learn about the candidates and where they stand on the issues, Lien said.

"I tell my students, all I want them to have at the end of my class is an opinion," Lien said. "If they have an opinion and they use their voice to vote, that will change the world."

Ninety-seven percent of Lien's students voted in the last election.

Susan Jessico, a social studies teacher at Woodland, incorporates lessons into her curriculum all year long.

"KidsVoting does not end on Election Day," she said.

Beyond helping her students figure out which polling place is theirs, Jessico teaches students in her American history class about the Constitution, the origins of democracy and the structure of government.


Bryan Karban, a 12th-grader at Central, takes his research outside the classroom.

Like Simmons, Karban has been voting regularly with his parents since he was a kindergartner at Homecroft.

He used to pick whatever candidates his parents were voting for, but started doing his own research as he got older.

Karban uses Minnesota Public Radio's Select A Candidate guide to gauge where candidates stand on issues important to him.

"I'm trying to learn a little about everything," Karban said. "The big issues for me are the social issues, like the death penalty and abortion."

With college less than a year away, Karban said he also will be paying close attention to how candidates plan to bring down the cost of college tuition.

"I've got to pay for it myself, so I'm pretty concerned about it," he said.

Just like he has done for nearly every election since kindergarten, Karban plans to hit the polls Tuesday.


"[Kids Voting] helped me understand that voting is one of the main ways I can influence the way the government operates," Karban said. "That's not something I plan to pass up."

SARAH HORNER covers K-12 education. She can be reached weekdays at (218) 723-5342 or by e-mail at shorner@duluth

What To Read Next
Get Local